As I write this, social media firms are meeting with the UK government to discuss shutting down social media access when criminal events are being planned. Not only is banning or shutting down social dodgy from a human rights perspective it's also nonsensical. Kick would-be criminals off social media and you simply can't track their riot-inciting communications. It's quite straightforward really.
Since Blackberry's BBM direct messaging system was such a hit with British rioters recently, much fist shaking and has cropped up in the tweetfields and radio talback programs. There have been calls for the direct messaging service, and others like it, to be shutdown during outbreaks of mass hooliganism. Louise Mensch, MP for Corby, was most notable in calling for a social media blackout.
David Cameron, fresh from the Tuscan sun, and ready to help resolve the country-wide panic, joined in. A statement from the prime minister on August 12 said law enforcement was considering "whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality".
Today, the government has fortunately tempered its judgement, paving the way for them to backtrack on any suggestion of a ban. A news release from the Press Association today says "A Home Office source said there was "no suggestion" that any of the sites would be closed down."
In time for the meeting of the social networks and the would-be blockers, Amnesty International reminds us that "China, Iran, Syria or the United Arab Emirates notoriously inhibit access to communications networks". Any step towards being compared to those sketchy global neighbours with more of a human whats? than a human rights attitude is more than undesirable.
There's never actually a good reason to stop the chatter on social media, not even if it's annoying, or leading to JD Sports being looted. Illegal chatter = evidence, and that's just what a criminal prosecuter or a roving police force need. I was recently speaking to a police intelligence analyst from the midlands who quite plainly agreed that it's a stupid idea. "We literally use Facebook and everything else to monitor what's going on in the area. If we can't see that stuff, we don't have as much information on what's going on." That's not to say it's their only source, but he made it clear it's a pretty good one.
Like everyone else sheltering inside our homes by Peckham Rye and other burning high streets across the UK on the sixth and seventh of August, I was somewhat concerned, but not terrified, during the riots because Twitter was keeping me, and therefore the police, informed of what was happening out on the street. @uk_police, @wmpolice were tweeting up a storm and super tweeters like @glinner were retweeting useful information. Even the police dogs were tweeting (hi @WMPcsidogsmithy).
If the government today chooses to shut down social networks during similar skirmishes, it will be a shortsighted knee-jerk reaction, and one I won't entirely believe. Some of the most useful information comes with listening in on criminals too stupid to realise that social media is a public broadcast system. Criminals like Barbs. Remember her? Without Twitter, we wouldn't know about the "tones of stuff" she stole.