Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Do We Need a Social Media Kill-Switch in the Wake of the London Riots?

Following the recent riots in London and surrounding cities, the British government is now considering whether it should seek to ban people from using social networks and other communications technologies during future times of crisis.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged: "we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality".

Is there truly a need for a social media kill-switch?

It is certainly true that different social media outlets played a very prominent role in turning the original clash into a much larger and more widespread riot. Blackberry Messenger and Twitter, in particular, are receiving the lion's share of the blame, even helping criminals to plan some of their activities.

However, Tony Hallett has posted some first-hand perspective that proves an insightful counterpoint. Hallett lives in Colliers Wood, one of the neighborhoods ravaged by the rioting and looting, and despite having to personally deal with the aftermath in his hometown, he nevertheless argues that giving the government a social media kill-switch would do far more harm than good.

At the weekend, there was a community meeting. There was a lot of confusion, anger and words of support from all there - ordinary residents as much as police, fire service, local councillors, business leaders and our local MP, who has called Colliers Wood home most of her life. But one thing most agreed on was that keeping the community informed about what's going on, not letting those living alone feel helpless or misinformed, is critical. While not everyone is online - and there are clearly ways to keep that minority in the loop - online should be key.

As much as social media may have exacerbated the rioting while it was taking place, it has also played a very positive role during the aftermath - both in organizing a post-riot clean-up and helping police to identify the criminals involved. Couple this with Hallett's testimony of how, even during the riots, social media helped to keep the sense of community somewhat intact and may have even prevented a complete and total breakdown of civil society (think Hurricane Katrina), and you at least have a very reasonable argument suggesting that the positives outweigh the negatives. At least that's the way a lot of the people experiencing this event first-hand see it.

To suggest that governments need a social media kill-switch to maintain law and order is quite an overreach. Besides, if the public is aware that their governments will investigate Blackberry and Twitter communications after-the-fact, then rioters and looters would be pretty stupid to ever use them for organizing their criminal endeavors in the first place.



At 3:46 PM, Blogger Fitz said...

Good editorial, Rob, as usual. I think your last paragraph sums up the issue well. I like your comment about Katrina in particular. What a thought; How different would that event have played out had BBM and Twitter been as ubiquitous then? Finally, as with a lot of things in our lives - but especially with regard to internet technology - the government getting involved in ANY way to regulate it would surely just balls it up entirely.


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