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British police tried to beat down rioters as class riots swept the island nation.  (Source: Pravista Today)

Britain is back to playing the censorship game in the wake of riots, looking to censor Facebook, Twitter, and BlackBerry communications to prevent future dissent.  (Source: Virgin Films)

BlackBerry's blog was hacked after Research in Motion pledged to turn rioters over to British police.
Facebook, Twitter, and BlackBerries are likely the first to be censored

Last week the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old man by members of the Metropolitan Police Service in Tottenham, North London, enraged the nation's working class.  People in several British cities took to the streets engaging in looting, arson, burglary, robbery and "general disorder."  Five civilians were killed, 186 police officers were injured, and over 1,200 people have been imprisoned for their role in the riots.  Property damages are estimated at £100M ($161M USD)

I. Censor Social Media and Mobile Devices?

In the wake of the riots the situation remains tense.  Britain has the lowest social mobility of any developed country and there's a growing wealth gap between the rich and poor.  The lack of opportunity and equality is creating a growing public animus that threatens more violence.

To try to cut that off, the nation's political elite are considering a sweeping campaign of censorship of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.  

In a Thursday speech to Parliament, embattled British Prime Minister David Cameron remarked, "Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized 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."

He said that the government and police are going "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."

PM Cameron, a Conservative (though more of a centrist by American political standards), is courting the opposition Labour Party on the matter.  And it appears to be working. Ivan Lewis, the Labour Party's shadow secretary of culture in the House of Commons, comments, "Free speech is central to our democracy, but so is public safety and security. We support the government's decision to undertake a review of whether measures are necessary to prevent the abuse of social media by those who organize and participate in criminal activities."

The Prime Minister has called for meetings with heads of top social network site Facebook and top microblogging platform Twitter -- both of which he said were used to spread word of the riots and encourage them.  He's also contacted Canada's Research In Motion, Ltd. (
TSE:RIM) as he claims that the company's BlackBerry smart phones were used to send messages spreading the riots.

II. Services Pledge to Cooperate, Met With Public Outrage

Facebook and Twitter both have agreed to the meeting, though they say they object to censoring or banning their services in the UK.  Facebook, however, vowed to remove posts or user pages directly inciting rioting.

RIM has also expressed willingness to cooperate, promising to help London police in locating those who incited the riot or participated.  This outraged some members of the English public and the official BlackBerry blog was hacked by a group calling itself TeaMp0isoN.  

The group comments:

Dear Rim;

You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all, the Police are looking to arrest as many people as possible to save themselves from embarrassment.... if you do assist the police by giving them chat logs, gps locations, customer information & access to peoples BlackBerry Messengers you will regret it, we have access to your database which includes your employees information; e.g - Addresses, Names, Phone Numbers etc. - now if u assist the police, we _WILL_ make this information public and pass it onto rioters.... do you really want a bunch of angry youths on your employees doorsteps? Think about it.... and don't think that the police will protect your employees, the police can't protect themselves let alone protect others..... if you make the wrong choice your database will be made public, save yourself the embarrassment and make the right choice. don't be a puppet..

p.s - we do not condone in innocent people being attacked in these riots nor do we condone in small businesses being looted, but we are all for the rioters that are engaging in attacks on the police and government.... and before anyone says "the blackberry employees are innocent" no they are not! They are the ones that would be assisting the police

Curt Hopkins of ReadWriteWeb also objected to the planned censorship, writing, "Banning those convicted of crimes from accessing social networks (the idea being that they used such access to organize criminal activities) is no different than banning the same criminals from accessing goose quills and ink pots. It will have zero effect on crime, aside from criminalizing social media itself."

III. My Take (EDITORIAL)

Our basic take on the issue is that government-sponsored digital censorship attempts are inevitable, but futile.

It's hard to consider this developing story without thinking of the late English author and philosopher George Orwell.  In his seminal work 1984 he paints a grim dystopian picture of an England in which impoverished working class is kept in line via constant government monitoring.  Likewise Alan Moore's graphic novel masterpiece V is for Vendetta depicted a totalitarian British government.  Note that in each case, though, for all the censorship, people did still rise up against oppression (though perhaps not so successfully in 1984's account).

England today is perhaps closer to that vision of "Big Brother" than any other nation around the world.  There are cameras on the street corners.  And there's a growing lack of opportunity for the nation's youth -- in short, it's hard to break out of poverty, and it's hard to step out of line.

Violent protests are obviously the domain of the desperate and, in their chaotic nature; they often fail to right whatever perceived wrong caused them in the first place.  On the other hand, the American Revolution began with both peaceful and violent protests, so not all violent protests work out badly.

It's appealing to try to stomp out violence via censorship, but the question becomes how far the censorship must go to stop the violent.  For example, it's hard to distinguish between a protest page against the English government supporting violence and one supporting a peaceful protest.  And humans are clever creatures -- those who actually do want to engage in violent protest can simply engage in code-speak that no amount of censorship can full destroy. 

Another compelling question is whether the UK government is truly interested in stomping out violence or whether its primarily interested in saving face and staying in power.  After all, public unrest is bad for politicians’ health in the polls.  At the end of the day many politicians are first focused on doing whatever it takes to stay in power, or to keep their party in power -- even if what it takes is censorship and public oppression.

But Britain is not alone in restricting free speech online and off.  In America the U.S. Supreme Court has vacillated on numerous free speech issues, such as dissent about the government, anonymous literature, obscenity, and speech in schools.  

In America protesters at political events are afforded special "free speech zones", but can be arrested if they peacefully demonstrate outside the zone.

In Branderburg v. Ohio the Supreme Court ruled that speech that incited "imminent lawless action" was punishable.  Hence the U.S. has the legal means to practice much of the same brand of censorship that the UK has, though, thus far they haven't been tested to a great extent.  In short, even free speech in the U.S. isn't so free.

The internet's wonders of anonymity and instant mass-communication likely will push the issue of free speech.  It already played a key role in overthrowing several governments in the Middle East, despite those governments' best efforts at censorship.  

The message for better or worse seems clear -- politicians can and will try internet censorship, but it's a doomed effort.  If politicians fail to give opportunity and equity to their people, the disfranchised will rise up.  When such digital dissidents are in the minority, they will inevitably be villainized and put down -- but when they become the majority, they will eventually rise up, no matter what censorship barriers are put in place.





"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il







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