[Marxism] In Britain, a Meeting on Limiting Social Media

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 26 07:25:43 MDT 2011

NY Times August 25, 2011
In Britain, a Meeting on Limiting Social Media

LONDON — British officials and representatives of Twitter, 
Facebook and BlackBerry met Thursday to discuss voluntary ways to 
limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime and 
periods of civil unrest, while trying to dodge charges of 
hypocrisy and censorship that trailed Prime Minister David 
Cameron’s call to restrict use of the networks after this month’s 

The government’s home minister, Theresa May, according to one 
account of the meeting, said that the aim was not to “discuss 
restricting Internet services,” but to instead “crack down on the 
networks being used for criminal behavior.” A spokeswoman for Ms. 
May said the government “would not be seeking any additional powers.”

But the discussion, according to those present, was still aimed at 
reeling in social media and strengthening the hand of law 
enforcement in gathering information from those networks. In the 
wake of revolutions that have seen widespread calls for freedom 
and democracy, free-speech advocates have said, the British 
government is considering similar policies to those it has 
criticized in totalitarian and one-party states.

“You do not want to be on a list with the countries that have 
cracked down on social media during the Arab Spring,” said Jo 
Glanville, the editor of Index on Censorship, a magazine that 
campaigns for freedom of expression, noting that such actions 
could “undermine democracy.”

Indeed, Iran, criticized by the West for restricting the Internet 
and curbing free speech, seemed to savor the moment and offered in 
the immediate aftermath of the riots to “send a human rights 
delegation to Britain to study human rights violations in the 
country,” according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Mr. Cameron had called for stronger controls on social media after 
nimble, smartphone-armed rioters and looters used the networks to 
outmaneuver the police. But while his call drew an outcry in some 
quarters, it also received heartfelt applause in others, where 
restoring order was seen as a higher priority than the rights of 
social networkers.

“I can understand why some people would feel uneasy,” said Gordon 
Scobbie, a senior police officer who leads efforts to sharpen the 
force’s social media presence and who was present at the meeting 
of Facebook, Twitter and the company that owns BlackBerry, 
Research in Motion. “But if they’re allowing criminal activity — 
and this was high-end criminality, people lost their lives in 
these riots — I struggle to see how that can just go on.”

“We have a duty to protect people,” he added, “and that’s always 
balanced with human rights, online or offline. It’s no different now.”

The officials and the executives met in private in government 
offices. The companies declined, beyond carefully written 
statements, to say what specific new measures they would be taking 
in cooperation with the British police and government.

But Mr. Scobbie said the group had discussed how far the networks 
might be willing to bend privacy rules to assist the police in 
pursuing online criminal activity. Twitter, he said, giving an 
example, might consider compelling people to use their real names 
instead of anonymous handles. Research In Motion has already 
agreed to provide the British police information from the 
BlackBerry Messenger network — used by many rioters to organize 
and strategize — under certain circumstances, he said. They might 
consider allowing “protocols” for easier access in future. RIM has 
previously negotiated with Saudi Arabia and India to allow some 
monitoring of users’ messages.

Mr. Scobbie and others present at the meeting said that the police 
were also considering using social media analysis software tools 
to parse enormous quantities of data available online for signs of 
future unrest.

“When people use a telephone, under certain circumstances, law 
enforcement has a means of intercepting that,” he said. “Just 
because it’s different media, we shouldn’t stand back and say, ‘We 
don’t play in that space.’ ” The police, he said, must have 
authority online and in real life.

But Heather Brooke, a freedom-of-information advocate who has 
written extensively about privacy online, cautioned that such 
secret negotiations came “with no judicial review or 
accountability,” adding, “Who’s checking to see whether the police 
are just going around fishing for information on the whole 
population, or going for people or groups they don’t like?”

Ms. Glanville, the free-speech advocate, described “a panic, a 
knee-jerk response to criminality and immorality” behind such 
measures, citing the cases of two men sentenced to four years in 
jail each for posting Facebook messages encouraging rioting, 
though no riots occurred. Politicians and the British judiciary 
were “out of touch,” she said.

The police, she said, have found social media a useful tool, 
helping to catch hapless looters who posted pictures of stolen 
goods online, and communities have used the same networks to 
gather together to repair their neighborhoods. “It’s not about 
social media, it’s about the state of the nation. Instead of 
taking about our great difficulties, we’re talking about the medium.”

It is not the first time Britain has wrestled with such dilemmas. 
Last year, Paul Chambers, 26, frustrated by an airport’s closing, 
threatened in a jokey Twitter message to blow the airport “sky 
high.” When he was arrested and fined, losing his job in the 
process, he became a cause célèbre, with the comedian Stephen Fry 
among those offering support for his case. This year, tens of 
thousands of Twitter users flouted a court order imposed on more 
traditional media and named a soccer player, Ryan Giggs, who was 
said to have had an affair with a reality TV star.

Some of the nations that have been criticized by the West for 
their own draconian crackdowns on inconvenient freedoms of speech 
have watched Britain’s recent struggles with barely disguised 
glee. In China, The Global Times, a government-controlled 
newspaper, praised Mr. Cameron’s comments, writing that “the open 
discussion of containment of the Internet in Britain has given 
rise to a new opportunity for the whole world.”

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