After the spectacle of watching the Egyptian government shut off the country’s Internet and mobile services in a desperate bid to keep anti-government protesters from using social networks to organize themselves, you’d have thought the fact that it ultimately didn’t work would serve as a lesson to other government leaders in the world.
Not if you’re the Prime Minister of Britain, apparently.
As you’ve probably heard by now, PM David Cameron is furious that rioters used social networking services like Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger (which isn’t a social networking service, I know, but tell the PM that) to coordinate their movements. His proposed solution: find ways to give the government the power to block social media sites in similar situations, and force such sites to police such content and track down anyone who posts it.
I won’t second-guess his motivations or his reasoning, or why he thinks that cracking down on social media sites would prevent organized street gatherings in the same way that similar crackdowns in Egypt and elsewhere generally haven’t.
But either way, it's clearly a political solution, not a practical one. As BT Counterpane’s Bruce Schneier has pointed out repeatedly for years, it’s silly and useless to put harsh restrictions on comms technology as a security measure on the sole basis that Bad Guys might use it to do Bad Things.
And as a public safety issue, it’s irresponsible. Cutting off rioters from mobile communications and social media services during a riot would also mean cutting off other people who might want to use them when they really need it – like when there’s a riot in the neighborhood.
I could go on, but MediaBistro has a nice round-up of reasons why censoring social networks is a useless idea.
We’ll see what happens. My own expectation is that the British government will either have to drop the idea as unworkable or implement it anyway and watch it fail spectacularly the next time there’s public unrest. Either outcome wouldn’t surprise me at this stage.
That said, China’s state media is reportedly chuffed by the news that Britain has come to see the same risks of unfettered social media communications as they do. So if Cameron’s people need any helpful tips to locking up control of the Internet in the name of preserving social order, they’ll know who to ask.