And then a step to the right

If there’s one thing riots are good for, it is allowing politicians to introduce more authoritarian and right-wing measures as a knee-jerk response.  After a disaster of any kind it seems that a large section of the general public call for extreme measures in response. Calls to lock people up without trial, shoot them, deport them, and now to take away any state benefits and evict them from social housing. Today the government e-petition site announced “The e-petition entitled “Convicted London rioters should loose all benefits” has now passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures and has been passed to the Backbench Business Committee to consider for debate. It will continue to be available for signature once the site is re-opened.

Many politicians seem no different in their response. In fact any shocking emergency situation provides them with an opportunity to pass harsher laws. Examples include the USA PATRIOT act, brought in in the aftermath of 9/11, which gave US authorities extensive powers of search and surveillance as well as allowing easy detention and deportation of immigrants. Here in the UK we had the crackdown on gun ownership after the Dunblane massacre, and the extension of pre-charge detention to 28 days following the London 7/7 bombings. Then there are ID cards and the national identity register, and control orders which keep people under house arrest for years when there is not enough evidence to prosecute them in court.

In the last ten years the Labour government was responsible for introducing many authoritarian laws and eroding our civil liberties by quite a large amount. The Conservatives have largely been against many of these laws and for the protection of civil liberties. In June David Cameron said “The right hon. and learned Lady should understand that this is all about proportionality and making sure that we have a system that helps protect people while respecting civil liberties.” The Conservatives have professed to be against detention without trial, ID cards, and the over-use of CCTV. In practice, once in government they have not rushed to repeal any laws and there has been little improvement.

Social media

Since the outbreak of widespread rioting and looting in the UK the Blackberry Messaging Service (BBM) and social networks, especially Twitter, have come under fire in the last few days as the primary means of communication for those that are involved. TechCrunch has a good explanation of how these people use BBM which I recommend that you read, and I won’t repeat here. Unfortunately the news media and politicians seem to have seized on this use of modern communications methods and papers like the Daily Mail and The Sun have even blamed Twitter for much of the looting. I was particularly annoyed to see journalists asserting that passing on images and reports from the scenes of the crime amounted to encouraging the crimes. Many of the photographs and tweets to do with the riots where actually from journalists who were there, and while twitter allowed these to be spread a long way in a short time, the same photographs and tweets later formed the backbone of newspaper and television reports! It is almost as though traditional print and television news media are just jealous of the speed of social networks.

Nonetheless, there have been widespread calls among the news media, general public and politicians for BBM and/or twitter to be turned off during riots to deprive the criminals of a means of communicating. Today in parliament several MPs continued these calls and one MP even called for mobile phone masts in the area to be switched off. David Cameron stated that switching off twitter and BBM was the direction that we should be taking.

It should be obvious why this is a bad idea. These networks are not there for organising criminal activity. They are there for communicating. Just like landline telephones and the postal service, they can be used to talk about any activity, good or bad. If they were removed, it would impact on all sorts of things. The riot cleanup movement on twitter would not have got started. It would have an impact on all sorts of business. People rely on those communications networks to stay in contact with family for support and with the emergency services. Frightened people hiding in their homes over shops as they are attacked could be cut off from their only support if social networks were switched off, and from any means of getting help at all should the mobile networks be shut down. Sick and disabled people rely on these communications methods not just for support but for their very sanity.

Politicians should also note the example that they would be following if they did shut down communications. Dictators in Egypt and Libya shut down internet and phone networks to hide the attrocities that they were committing. It didn’t have the desired results, either. The whole world condemned those countries for their actions and the people found other ways to communicate, with all the more drive to remove their governments. China places severe restrictions and censorship on its internet connections. Twitter is frequently used to spread evidence of wrongdoing and brutality by the police, and videos taken and uploaded during protests have been used in investigations into killing by the police. This is not something that we want obstructed, although, of course, it might be something that the police would like stopped.

We already have censorship of internet connections here in the UK. ISPs already block any website on the list provided by the Internet Watch Foundation, sites which they deem to contain child pornography. A recent court case has seen internet providers ordered to block websites that index files available for download, and it is quite likely that the system in place for the IWF list will be used for this too. Our internet connections are already censored, the courts have ordered more sites to be blocked, and now the government are talking about turning off social networks on the whim of the police.  Add the comments made in parliament today and you can see why this tweet seems so believable.

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This tweet was taken as genuine by many people today. The problem is, it isn’t so far from reality. Don’t be fooled though; the “@skynewsticker” account is actually a spoof account set up to provide humorous insights. The genuine account is @skynewsbreak. And Cameron wouldn’t talk to China about it, because Chinese web censorship is mostly done using American technology.

I have a strong preference for our communications networks not to be shut down, even to help stop criminal behaviour. If the government has to resort to cutting off communications to retain order, that is indicative of deeper problems.  Amnesty International has concerns about this too.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“Human rights are not an inflexible, blunt instrument designed to prevent the police from protecting people and thwarting crime. However, any decision to block or limit access to social communications must be legal, proportionate and have a legitimate aim.

“It is legitimate, in specific circumstances, to stop people using social media to plan violence and crime. Freedom of expression is not an unlimited right and can be subject to regulation where risks are legitimately perceived.

“But David Cameron must ensure that the fear engendered by the recent riots and the determination to ensure that there is no repeat or escalation of the events of the last week, does not result in a knee-jerk reaction which curtails freedom of expression in a disproportionate way.

“Governments in other countries such as China, Iran, Syria or the United Arab Emirates notoriously inhibit access to communications networks and resources within their countries. Embarking down a road of curtailing free access to the internet and other networks is not a decision the UK authorities should take lightly and it is vital that any censorship does not inhibit legitimate forms of non-violent protest.

“We will await the outcome of the discussions with interest.”

We must keep in mind that once freedoms are given up, it is rare for them to return. At least, not without a revolution. Once it is standard practice to turn off communications for riots it will become accepted practice during legitimate protests too, especially since the public and the government will frequently disagree about what is legitimate protest. We must not let this become acceptable.