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Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has stressed the need to keep freedom of speech as a priority, even in times of civil unrest. Speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco on Monday, Costolo stood by the decision not to suspend the service or reveal user identities to authorities in the wake of the UK riots this summer. Talks between representatives from Facebook, Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger and Home Secretary Theresa May during the riots caused speculation that the government would try to temporarily suspend the digital networks.
In the wake of this week’s riots across the country, David Cameron today told parliament that the government is looking into banning people from using social networking sites if they are thought to be organising criminal activity.
Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck 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.
Index on Censorship this afternoon released a statement in reaction to Cameron’s address:
David Cameron must not allow legitimate anger over the recent riots and looting in the UK to be used in an attack on free expression and free information. Too often, channels of communication, whether Twitter, Facebook or BlackBerry Messenger are seen as the culprits in acts of violence and anti-social behaviour, rather than merely the conduit. While 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.
The Global Network Initiative also responded, saying:
A UK government response to ongoing violence that erodes legal due process or demonstrates a lack of respect for internationally recognized human rights and free speech norms could make it more difficult for Internet and telecommunications companies everywhere to resist surveillance and censorship requests of governments that infringe user rights.
Zeinobia at Egyptian Chronicles shared this sentiment:
Forget about Egypt, think about other countries that can be harmed , now Bashar El Assad and other dictators will boldly block and even shut down the internet to protect the society and its so-called stability.
Technology commentator Jeff Jarvis also outlined why a social media crackdown would be wrong:
Beware, sir. 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?
This regulatory reflex further exposes the danger of British government thinking it can and should regulate media. Beware, my friends. When anyone’s speech is not free, no one’s speech is free. I refer the honourable gentleman to this Censorship is not the path to civility. Only speech is.
Journalist and author Doug Saunders also dubbed the plans “draconian”. A post at The Atlantic Wire ran the omnious headline ”Twitter Braces for Censorship Following the UK Riots.” Meanwhile, internet freedom skeptic Evgeny Morozov seemed confused, tweeting:
I dunno whom to be believe: Gordon Brown said social media would stop next Rwanda and Cameron seems to be saying it would make next Rwanda.
Others pointed out that social media has indeed been utilised for good, having been a key tool in organising the widespread clean-ups that took place following the riots.
John Kennedy at Global Voices Online has translated a handful of Chinese netizens’ comments from the Sina Weibo microblog in response to the news that British police have begun arresting people on suspicion of using social media to organise rioting. One asked, “should we lend them our GFW [Great Firewall] then?” Another mused on what the future will be for China’s domestic microblogs, already used to combat the country’s sophisticated censorship tools: “I just wonder, will Beijing use this as an excuse now to get rid of Weibo, that thorn in their side?”
Noting how social media, particularly the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service, were used to organise this week’s intense riots, David Cameron today told parliament that the government is looking into banning people from using social networking sites if they are thought to be organising criminal activity. He added that home secretary Theresa May will hold meetings with Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion within weeks to discuss their responsibilities in this area. Cameron also said that broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky News have a responsibility to hand over unused footage of the riots to police, despite the fact that, due to concerns over damaging broadcasters’ editorial independence, attempts to enforce this in the past have been met with resistance.
Index on Censorship news editor Padraig Reidy said today:
“David Cameron must not allow legitimate anger over the recent riots and looting in the UK to be used in an attack on free expression and free information. Too often, channels of communication, whether Twitter, Facebook or BlackBerry Messenger are seen as the culprits in acts of violence and anti-social behaviour, rather than merely the conduit. While 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.”