The decision by the British Prime Minister David Cameron to recall Parliament from its summer recess shows the level of soul-searching that Britain is currently undertaking in the wake of four consecutive nights of looting in violence in cities across England. As the MPs debated the issue in the House of Commons on Thursday 11th August, it quickly became apparent that the chasm between the political class and the rest of the population had become wider than possibly ever before - greater even than the unrest of the 1980s. What was also apparent was the PM's and other member's of the House's lack of clarity of thought when it comes to technology and how best to work with it.
As was the case with the Arab Spring, technology was once again integral to bringing the masses together, though for the chance of a new pair of trainers or flat-screen television rather than political freedom that the streets of Egypt and other countries have demanded. The mayhem in English cities have been dubbed the Blackberry Riots by some due to the Blackberry messages (BBM) that spread amongst the mobs that descended on high streets to loot, clash with police and cause destruction to property, livelihoods and even lives. Holding 37% of the teenage mobile market in the UK, it is not surprising that Blackberry's free messaging service was quickly blamed for the mayhem but it does not excuse the knee-jerk reactions to have social media services suspended.
David Lammy, MP for Tottenham called for RIM, the company that makes Blackberrys, to suspend the BBM service, while Conservative MP Louise Mensch said "a brief, temporary shutdown" of Twitter and Facebook to stop rumours spreading would be no different to a "brief road or rail closure." The Prime Minister, in his speech to House of Commons echoed the poorly-formed grasp of social media when he said,
"Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.So 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.
These calls for the shut down of social media outlets were quickly rebuked by many as hypocrisy by the British Government, considering policies that states which the British Government often chastise for preventing freedom of expression for their citizens. As @PBM87 wrote on twitter, "the police should control whether we're able to talk to each other? Not reassured by that distinction at all."
The suspension of social networks is completely unfeasible. It is a knee-jerk reaction; a hastily constructed soundbite that the Government used to show that they were still capable of control over what was a senseless few days. The fact that this was even considered shows that those in authority have still not seen the merits of technology. Kevin Hoy, web manager at Greater Manchester Police, said to the Guardian that Twitter allowed his force to give "direct reassurance" and "dispel rumours...in a way that we could never have achieved previously." He is one of the few to understand that power in today's technology-connected world is the ability to converse. Many police forces have been using Twitter and Facebook in the last week to urge people to help identify looters from CCTV images and show that order is being restored. Greater Manchester Police did have one blip in this, tweeting a tweet about someone's conviction that felt to many followers as gloating by the force, but their apology and subsequent tweets showed an authority that is willing to listen and engage - something that many members of society have accused police and politicians of lacking and a possible reason as to why what happened happened.
Technology and social media is useful to the authorities as they currently exist in other ways too. In the case of the English riots, RIM and the mobile phone operators hold information that can be used to convict guilty parties. Traffic data can show who messaged whom, where they were when they did and when that was. Used in conjunction with CCTV, the police should be able to put names to faces. The current law surrounding data protection would allow them to do this, whilst still retaining a sense of civil liberty to those that abide by the law. The Data Protection Act protects consumers from companies sharing traffic data in everyday situations but contains a clause for police to demand the data for cases where a crime has taken place.
The actual content contained within messages is legally murkier. Revealing such data to authorities could lead to phone companies being sued for breach of confidentiality but as the law currently stands the current legislation is proportionate. Police have the power to find where someone was at such a time but to grant them the ability to snoop on messages is a step too far; there should be other evidence to support the location data in accusing someone of a crime.
The calls for social media to be shutdown in times of disorder is also a step too far and a frankly draconian and ridiculous consideration. If the riots have shown the politicians and police anything it should be that they haven't communicated and engaged with Britain's disenfranchised for too long. Closing the 21st century's greatest tool in doing exactly that would only exacerbates the problem.
This post was originally posted at Fotorater.
Follow John Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnjohnston100