The nature and motivation of social protest may not have changed, but the technology being used to organize, punish and excuse it sure have.
An Aug. 8 story in the U.K.'s Daily Mail story opens with a nostalgic description of the protest as an open-air shouting match 25 years ago has transitioned into the social-media-informed, txt-message-organized riots earlier this month in London.
Blackberries got a lot of the blame, in fact, because some protesters used RIM's ubiquitous business network to organize gathering and shouting points, though police also pulled data from mobile phone carriers to help identify rioters and looters.
Social networks got the blame next, because any discussion held over networks or media enabled by a computer must be, somehow, the fault of the computer itself.
It didn't matter that those opposing both the protests and riots also used social-networking techniques (in this case to ask people to upload pictures of rioters, so they could be caught more easily).
British law enforcement agencies are already using the riot and alleged use of various networks and mobile phone networks by rioters as an excuse to expand their already broad powers to demand information on the location and calling activity of private citizens and to censor content on otherwise public networks.
British police also started using facial-recognition technology to help identify rioters and looters, though its reliability is questionable, the distribution of systems throughout the city leaves many areas uncovered and the number of tips that came through the new system was dwarfed by "traditional" sources – still images from cameras, photos taken by police watching the scene, video from police helicopters and the like.
In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit took one lesson from British officials: that you can make it harder for protesters to organize if you shut off access to their methods of communications.
BART completely missed the other less of the New Era of British Censorship: Shutting off social networks, cell phone networks and other methods people use to talk to each other annoys them so much they will launch a series of protests and cause a huge scandal with you at the center even if they're distracted by a weeklong series of race riots, killings and fires.
That second lesson is the one that should have stuck, by the way. People get mad when you keep them from talking to each other using technology they pay for, depend on and with which most of them have never committed a crime. Even in the Nanny State it's a huge faux pas to treat a whole population as if each member of it is a criminal.
In the far more politically enlightened San Francisco you'd think directors of BART would be more sensitive to the gentle indications (cricket bats to the head) from England's example and not created an enormous scandal by trying to turn off cell phone networks to short-circuit a minor protest about a minor issue in a minor station that would have created a minor traffic jam.
Organizers didn't publicize the protest, and it's not even entirely clear what it was about, though the SF Chronicle's best guess was that it was over a July 3 incident in which BART police fatally shot a man with a knife.
BART shut off cell phone access to all its stations in the area, using as an excuse that free speech is free in public areas, but not necessarily within areas people have to pay to enter – like train stations.
The protest never did materialize, but the scandal over BART's excessive, pre-emptive attempt to quash it not only launched a new protest, it got BART nominated to be a special project for Anonymous.
The group threatened not only to stage a protest, but to jam police radios to give them the BART treatment and hacked the BART home page to add a couple of pirate-flag Guy Fawkes faces that you realize looking at them is exactly what the site needed to pull together all the other gray, off gray and bluish gray graphical elements on the page.
However boring BART's pre-emptive censorship of its customers' cell phone conversations, it's still illegal, not to mention unconstitutional, and antithetical to all the principals of the Constitution, even if cell phone and social networks weren't mentioned in it specifically.
What was mentioned were all the methods of mass communication available at the time and the explicit protection any of those methods should have from surveillance, censorship or prevention by the authorities.
Every time a new technology comes along that makes something quicker or easier or, more threateningly, makes it easier for people to discuss their problems or research the government's failure to do anything about them, some people feel threatened, try to blame the technology and solve the problem by shutting it off.
Guess what? Social networks, Blackberry Messenger, IM, email, the web, personal video conferencing and every other new communications technology is nothing new or exciting or unexplored in the view of either the way-pre-technological founders of the U.S. or the protections they built into the constitution.
All those technologies are just ways for people to talk to each other. That's it.
If you don't like what they're saying or what they do after they say it, or how loudly they say it, too bad. Talk is permitted.
If you don't like the way they set fire to police cars after talking about it, well, that's legitimate.
You address that by keeping the few people intent on setting fire to cop cars from doing it.
You don't do it by keeping everyone in a particular area from talking about anything, on the off chance they're the culprits you're after (for something you think they're going to do but haven't yet).
That's not the way "innocent until proven guilty" works, however attractive the idea is to those responsible for keeping order that their job would be a lot easier if they could listen in on ever word everyone was saying all the time and choosing to focus only on the conversations that turn in a direction they don't like.
Aside from the miniscule percentage of the volume of conversation that goes on every minute of every day – which would make universal surveillance stupidly wasteful as well as unconstitutionally intrusive – it wouldn't work.
People get mad when you try to fence them in. Even the English – who are as fenced in as people can get without actually becoming livestock.
And they – people who live in the Nanny State and like it – kept a riot going partially out of rage at having their mobiles and socials shut off.
Take a lesson BART, and FBI and other government agencies: People are crazy; don't mess with their computer stuff.
I do have to admit though, that, sometimes, invasion of privacy and violation of the rights of the individual do sometimes end up increasing the safety of the general population.
As an example, this headline, about a plot British police stopped cold after monitoring Blackberry Messenger networks for signs of criminal conspiracies.
If police had not stopped the attack, there is not telling how many people could have been made tragically damp.