Cameron’s ban on social media just wouldn’t work

Aug 12, 2011
Ben Riley-Smith

First reaction: the reality of any proposed ban is that it would simply be impossible to implement

David Cameron sparked controversy yesterday when he told MPs during the emergency Commons debate on the recent riots that the government was looking into the possibility of restricting social media in the future.
"When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them," the prime minister said. "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."
Before details of any such restrictions are available, the subject has already split opinion...
Freezing Twitter would help the police. Tory MP Louise Mensch took to Twitter to support Cameron's case. "Northamptonshire Police advised me that much of their time and resources were wasted answering false alarms due to social media rumours," she wrote.
"I don't have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media," Mensch continued, "just as I don't have a problem with a brief road or rail closure. If short, necessary and only used in an emergency, so what? If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. The world won't implode."
A social media crackdown robs freedom of speech. "Who is to say what communication and content should be banned?" asked the Guardian's Jeff Jarvis. Addressing Cameron, he wrote: "If you take these steps, what separates you from the Saudi government demanding the ability to listen to and restrict its BBM networks? What separates you from Arab tyrannies cutting off social communication via Twitter or from China banning it?"
"When anyone's speech is not free, no one's speech is free," Jarvis continued. "Censorship is not the path to civility. Only speech is."
Gordon MacMillan also rejected he idea on Huffington Post: "Those using social media to stir trouble and violence have to be educated and taught that it isn't a free-for-all and that freedom of speech, in whatever medium, is a right and not a privilege. If you abuse it you will be punished, but you can't simply remove the right."
Social media can be harnessed for good. "The UK press has pointed the finger of blame squarely at social media for the London riots," Ben Rooney wrote for the Wall Street Journal, "but will they be as quick to thank social media for the clean-up campaign?"
Chris Davies made a similar point on Tech blog Slash Gear. "This new angle by the UK government arguably shows a naivety in understanding exactly what 'social media' comprises, as well as ignoring the potential Twitter and other networks have demonstrated for positive reaction, such as the ‘clean up' squads organised in some cases simultaneously with the rioting going on."
Dan Thompson, the man who organised the clean-up, gave a shorter dismissal of the Twitter criticism: "You might as well blame the air".
Restrictions would fail even if implemented. "Any attempt to place a ban on the use of social media would be fraught with difficulty," Omar el Akkad wrote in Canada's Globe and Mail. "Not only would such a move be challenged as an infringement of the right to freedom of speech that Mr. Cameron so recently lauded, it would entail costly and complex work by telecom carriers and Internet Service Providers.
"What's more, there's no guarantee it would work, given the myriad ways activists have found to get around such roadblocks. There is no guarantee that a ban on social media would do anything to stem the violence."

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