Amidst riots in the UK, calls to censor social media

The suspicion that social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as well as BlackBerry Messenger helped incite riots that gripped England earlier this week has led politicians to demand their shutdown.

Prime Minister David Cameron directly blamed social media for the riots. In a statement before the House of Commons, he asked for what commentators around the world have understood as a temporary shutdown of communication platforms such as Twitter and Facebook:

[E]veryone watching these horrific actions will be struck 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.

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) was also named early as a culprit, allegedly allowing rioting youth to communicate while on the street. The instant messenger is both free and private, advantages it has over SMS and social media such as Twitter, respectively. However, there is no known evidence that BlackBerry was indeed prominently used by rioters.

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where the riots first started, claimed in an interview that BBM was “one of reasons why unsophisticated criminals are outfoxing an otherwise sophisticated police force” and called for the service to be temporarily suspended.

While Research in Motion, the company behind BlackBerry, did not shut down its service, it said that it had “engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.” Commentators speculate that this means that the company is handing over decrypted messages to the police.

Cameron and Lammy's remarks have triggered a global response. Index on Censorship states that “[w]hile police in investigations should be able to investigate relevant communications, there should be no power to pre-emptively monitor or suspend communications for ordinary social media users,” and the Global Network Initiative warned the UK government not to react in a way that “erodes legal due process or demonstrates a lack of respect for internationally recognized human rights and free speech norms.”

Notably, China’s state news agency, Xinhua, wrote that “[t]he British government, once an ardent advocate of absolute Internet freedom, has thus made a U-turn over its stance towards web-monitoring,” and reminding that Cameron said in February that freedom of expression should be respected “in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square." The article goes on to “wonder why western leaders, on the one hand, tend to indiscriminately accuse other nations of monitoring, but on the other take for granted their steps to monitor and control the Internet.”

Global Voices Online has translated some messages from Chinese microbloggers, some of whom fear that Cameron’s statement could be used by the Chinese government as an excuse to “get rid of Weibo,” the country’s biggest microblogging service.

While there is no solid evidence that social media played a significant role in enabling the riots, police in the UK have already arrested a handful of people who used BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook to incite riots.