UK authorities should not be given a communication 'killswitch'

In the aftermath of riots that have spread across England in recent days, prime minister David Cameron proposed blocking social networks during future disturbances. This would be a dangerous erosion of civil liberties.
Ryan Gallagher
11 August 2011

During his address to the House of Commons today, prime minister David Cameron proposed that in the future, authorities might be given powers to stop people communicating over social networking websites if they are suspected of plotting "violence, disorder and criminality”.  

Cameron was speaking after several days of heavy rioting across England prompted parliament to be recalled from its summer recess. The riots, sparked in London after police shot dead a man in Tottenham on Thursday, quickly spread to several of the country's major cities – Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.

It soon became apparent that Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and other forms of social media were being used heavily to organise looting across the country. (BBM is a kind of instant messaging service that allows owners of Blackberry smartphones to communicate by sending secure messages to eachother for free.)

Several media outlets were quick to point the finger: "Rioting thugs used Twitter to boost their numbers in theiving store," reported the Sun. The Daily Mail called the disturbances, "Twitter riots."

In his speech today, Cameron said:

Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck 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.

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.

I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers. [...] Whenever the police face a new threat – they must have the freedom and the confidence to change tactics. This government will make sure they always have that. The fight back has well and truly begun.

But there will be no complacency. And we will not stop until this mindless violence and thuggery is defeated and law and order is fully restored on all our streets.

If Cameron truly believes that those engaging in ‘disturbances’ will be hampered if they are shut out of BBM, Twitter or other such services, then he’s naïve. There will always be alternatives.

Such action might in fact impede ‘law and order’. The police can glean intelligence, thanks to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), from all kinds of monitoring of phones, text messages, emails and Blackberry Messenger (as Blackberry confirmed during the riots).

Cameron’s response was clearly kneejerk, and he will likely face heavy opposition if he is to try and implement any sort of communication block – which has an eerily totalitarian ring to it.

Online advocacy organisation Open Rights Group (ORG), drew immediate comparisons with methods used by governments in China, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. “Making laws in haste, with limited analysis and information, to deal with an exceptional problem is likely to create unbalanced laws and abuses of our rights,” said Jim Killock, ORG’s executive director.

Do we really want to entrust our authorities, in this land of democracy and free speech, with a Colonel Gaddafi style ‘killswitch’? Blair’s “War on Terror” unleashed an assault on our civil liberties. Let not Cameron’s restoration of “law and order” finish the job.

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