British politicians and law enforcement are likely to invoke the Regulatory of Investigative Powers Act (RIPA) in the wake of riots and looting in London and several other British cities, which could force companies to turn over to authorities message data generated from devices such as smartphones.
Now Prime Minister David Cameron is suggesting going beyond RIPA to some kind of pre-emptive clampdown on social media.
Good luck with that. Trying to control how the populace communicates is going to be a lot trickier than Cameron might think. Not to mention the fact that shutting down access to BlackBerry Messenger Service, Twitter and Facebook raises all kinds of questions about government authority and individual rights.
From The Guardian:
The prime minister told parliament on Thursday that Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion should take more responsibility for content posted on their networks, warning the government would look to ban people from major social networks if they were suspected of inciting violence online.The home secretary, Theresa May, is to hold meetings with the three companies within weeks.
Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, already has indicated it would assist the investigation into the recent riots and looting in any way it can. Since the only way RIM can really help is to provide messaging data to authorities, that's probably what it has in mind.
Facebook, too, says it has proactively removed from its social network "credible threats of violence," according to The Register.
But would RIM, Facebook and Twitter be willing to "ban" people from using their services upon government order? And even if they were willing to, how would Twitter and Facebook know if a banned person returned with a fake account?
And how are they going to keep BlackBerry users from messaging without shutting down the network altogether, even in a small area? Shades of Egypt!
A British attorney quoted by The Register nails the problem:
"What David Cameron appears to be wanting is a police power to trawl through millions of messages – ideally in real time – to prevent possible criminal activity. I don't believe that any such power exists and nor would I want there to be one. That gets the balance wrong in terms of free speech and security. It would certainly put the UK in a difficult position in terms of talking to authoritarian regimes and trying to convince them not to turn off their networks."
Difficult position indeed. Pretty much the same position the U.S. finds itself in regarding torture.
Sadly, whenever unrest threatens the social order, normally opposing political sides unite to demonstrate their "crackdown cred." Which is what's happening in the U.K., with Cameron's opposition supporting a social media crackdown, however vague the concept.
Politicians and law enforcement are responsible for maintaining order in a country, so the current conversation is understandable. However, it's interesting that Cameron and other British authorities almost seem to assume there'll be more riots. Maybe instead of focusing on how to control social networks to disrupt communications during violent unrest, some of the people in charge could spend a little time thinking about why the riots began in the first place.