On April 29th I reported that at least 50 political Facebook accounts, nearly all linked to activist groups involved in the anti-cuts movement, had been deleted without warning or explanation in what looked like a co-ordinated purge ahead of the Royal Wedding. Although the accounts had technically been in violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, since they represented groups rather than individuals, I suggested that the timing of the deletions, along with the type and number of groups targeted, raised the very strong possibility that the Met had been involved somewhere along the line as part of their operation of “pre-emptive” disruption and intimidation of activists they suspected of planning republican protests that weekend.
The deletions prompted an immediate campaign demanding the restoration of accounts, full transparency and a commitment by Facebook to not collaborate in censorship. The campaign, helped by articles in the Guardian, Boing Boing and on the New York Times website, forced Facebook to take the exceptional step of writing to all the account administrators offering to convert their accounts into pages. Facebook's insistence that the removal of the accounts was not politically motivated or instigated by law enforcement was not enough to quell suspicions of censorship, especially given stories that have appeared since then of its role in shutting opposition accounts in other countries.
One activist, Hanna Black, took the step of writing a Freedom of Information request to the Met demanding to know:
1. Can the MPS confirm whether or not they communicated with Facebook about the blocking/suspension of these accounts? Were the MPS or agents connected with the MPS involved in the suspension of these profiles?
2. What if any ongoing communication is there between the MPS and Facebook regarding activist/political groups on Facebook?
3. Please give access to any MPS records concerning the monitoring of Facebook in the run-up to the royal wedding, and the rationale, if any, behind blocking the profiles involved.
The Met has now replied stating that it can neither “confirm nor deny” whether communications with Facebook exist or whether requests regarding this matter were/were not made since these are “questions relating to the operational policing of extremist organisations.”
The response goes onto cite 3 sections of the FOI Act, which give qualifed exemption to information relating to "Security bodies", "National Security" and "Law enforcement". The public interest benefit of disclosure is outweighed in this case, according to the Met, by the "harm" it would cause.
It is likely that other areas, departments and partner agencies within the Metropolitan area would have been involved in the operational policing of extremist organisations for the Royal Wedding.To confirm or deny whether we communicated with Facebook or monitored profiles, would compromise our ability to continue our policing role, jeopardise police tactics and reveal police capabilities. In this current environment of an increased threat of terrorist activity, providing any details that could assist extremists or criminals of any organisation would undermine the safeguarding of national security. To enable the criminal fraternity to be better informed about the intelligence, capabilities, resources and tactics available to the MPS, would greatly impact on police resources in planning future operations. There are criminals who would seek to obtain tactical details to improve on their plans to avoid being detected and apprehended. To disclosure any information is likely to impact on police resources, should the MPS continually have to change their actions, tactics and methodology due to a FOIA disclosure.
So there you have it. It's tempting to conclude from this that the Met did indeed play its part in purging these accounts, and is refusing to tell us, but I suppose the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the catch-all invocation of "terrorism" and "national security" is enough, from their Met's point of view, to justify total secrecy over whether taxpayers' money is now being spent on censoring online political organising groups.
The deliberate confusion of political activism with "terrorism" - a highly problematic term in itself, selectively deployed by the powerful - is a long-practiced strategy of course. Anti-terror laws are routinely used by police against political activists, whilst SO15, Counter Terrorism Command, has been closely involved in policing the anti-cuts movement. An email published today on Infinite Thought, shows how universities were contacted earlier this year by an SO15 officer encouraging lecturers to report on politically active students.
Likewise, the use of the term "extremist organisations" here is hardly suprising. Despite being an entirely invented category, with no legal basis,"domestic extremism" is the bete noir that justifies the millions spent on an ever-expanding apparatus of state surveillance to monitor, inflitrate and disrupt protest groups. According to the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit - a body set up by the private comany, ACPO, in 2004 at the institgation of big business - extremists are those who conduct "criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign". To anyone paying attention it was always apparent from the presence of FIT teams, and counter-terror units, at entirely peaceful marches, such as last week's Slut Walk, that it wasn't just "criminal" elements the police were interested in tracking but anyone challenging government policy.
Entirely mainstream and moderate groups involved in fighting the cuts, such as Unite-London, Save the NHS, Westminster Trades Council, are now, as the Met's reply to the FOI request shows, explicitly branded as "extremists" along with University occupations and even left-wing blogs. Of course, one might consider it "extreme" to force some of the poorest, most desperate people in our society to pay for an economic crisis provoked by the greed of the ultra-rich, but apparently that term is reserved for those who oppose such policies. As Ed Davey, the Lib Dem minister for employment law, put it in an intervention today calculated to appear conciliatory towards "reasonable moderate trade union leaders", new anti-strike laws would only "play into the hands of extremists" i.e. those who advocate industrial action to oppose the government's plundering of public sector pensions.
The "reasonableness" of the governing classes may seem like quite the opposite to those who haven't swallowed whole the ideology of TINA, but it is helpful to have the parameters of acceptable debate set out quite so clearly: "Stray beyond the permitted forms of disagreement into opposition that might actually prove effective and you are an "extremist" to be monitored, pre-emptively disrupted and should we choose to (though we would never say so if we did) deleted."