In a parliamentary address today on the riots in England this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement that caught a lot of people's attention on Twitter: "When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them." He was discussing the role Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Messenger have played in allowing rioters to coordinate looting (in fact, several have been arrested of using these technologies to incite violence). "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," Cameron added. "Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill."
Cameron's proposed interference in social media in the name of security provoked instant reaction online. The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders called the suggestion "draconian," Vanity Fair contributor Emma Gilbey Keller deemed it "ominous," and online activist Jim Killock labeled it a potential attack on free speech. Others wondered how authorities would even go about detecting impending violence online. Twitter users in the Middle East, where regimes are cracking down on Internet use to quash uprisings, were also unhappy. Cameron "will now be the most cited reference by all despots clamping down on social media," wrote one Syrian activist. "If the UK limits social media to contain the riots, then we are witnessing a spectacularly revealing moment for First World regimes," added Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem. Others smelled hypocrisy. "Remember folks, it's okay if the West does it," tweeted Middle East commentator Sultan Al Qassemi. Pakistan-based journalist Omar Waraich noted that Cameron had praised social media as a "powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression" during a speech in Kuwait in February.
The Guardian claims that "a move to disconnect potential rioters would mark a huge shift in Britain's internet policy, with free speech advocates likely to accuse the government of ushering in a new wave of online censorship." But not everyone's convinced that it would mark such a significant departure from current policy. British journalist Kevin Duffy argues that the U.K.'s Serious Crime Act of 2007 "already provides for prosecuting incitement, via any medium, to commit crime."
The controversy surfaces against the backdrop of the U.K.'s strict media laws. Britain's "super-injunction" laws, which are similar to gagging orders in the U.S., prevent the press from publishing certain information to protect people's privacy. But application of the law is fuzzy when it comes to social media--a fact on full display in May when Twitter users launched a massive campaign against Manchester United player Ryan Giggs's attempt to keep the press from writing about an alleged affair. In the latest tug-of-war between the government and the media, Cameron has asked broadcasters to hand over unused footage of the riots in England to police. "Attempts in the past to force broadcasters to hand over their footage have been met with fierce resistance, The Guardian notes.