Independent Panel Compares London Riots To Arab Spring, Highlights Hypocrisy Of Wanting To Control Social Media

from the do-as-i-say-not-as-i-do dept

After last year's riots in London, the British government established an independent panel to try to make some sense of what happened. Among the many things they examined were the claims by some that social media and text messaging were largely responsible, and that the government might need some kind of "kill switch" on these services to stop the same thing from happening again. The panel recently published an interim report, and their response to the social media question (as highlighted in the Guardian) is refreshing:

On the role of social networks, the panel concluded that rioters were aided by instant messaging services but warned against plans to shut down websites such as Twitter and Facebook. They pointed out that the UK has pledged support for the open use of social media during the Arab spring uprising across the Middle East.

"Mobile communications technology is continually evolving and new developments may benefit the police and authorities rather than rioters," the panel concluded. They added that some mobile networks have installed systems to detect crowds and the direction they are moving in so they can manage congestion.

"In the future, it may be possible to use cell congestion monitoring as a tool to tackle rioting," the report found. "What is clear from the riots is that there is no simple 'switch off' solution. Viral silence may have as many dangers as viral noise."

This touches on a couple of points we've made before—like the fact that smart cops can use social media to their advantage—but the highlight is the direct and unabashed comparison to the Arab spring riots. That's a controversial topic, with many people insisting that rioters in a democracy are fundamentally different than those in living under an oppressive regime. While I can see how people have less sympathy for the former, this argument has always bothered me, because it is used as justification for stronger methods (like shutting down Twitter) of stopping riots. That creates a strange paradox: the idea that oppressive measures are acceptable, but only for non-oppressive governments. While it's easy to look at some of the London rioters and see spoiled kids, it's important to remember that dictators see the rioters in their countries the same way.

So it's nice to see the panel underline the contradiction of supporting the open internet in the Middle East while wanting to control it at home. We've noted this exact hypocrisy at play in the U.S., where the State Department takes a vocal public stance in favor of an open internet around the world, while their diplomats quietly push copyright censorship systems in other countries—or where Joe Biden can opine against censorship while supporting SOPA and its censorship provisions. Of course, in that regard, the UK is not much better, and seems to have a similar blind spot when it comes to copyright law and the many ways it contradicts their stance on internet freedom.



Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    PaulT (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 3:48am

    "the panel concluded that rioters were aided by instant messaging services but warned against plans to shut down websites such as Twitter and Facebook."

    Possibly because later studies actually concluded that most of them were actually using Blackberry Messenger rather than those sites (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/07/bbm-rioters-communication-method-choice). It's also worth noting that Twitter and other social media were also used to organise volunteers who cleared up the damage in the mornings following the riots (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8690418/London-riots-residents-use-Twitter-to-organise -clean-up.html).

    The basic "problem" is that people can communicate their ideas. The technology is neutral, and allowing governments to block such communication at a whim is dangerous at best. There's no real difference between "oppressive" regimes and more "enlightened" ones in this sense, except for whether or not you happen to support the speech being blocked.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 4:16am

    'the UK is not much better, and seems to have a similar blind spot when it comes to copyright law and the many ways it contradicts their stance on internet freedom.'

    hear, hear. typical of many of our so-called 'democratic societies' today. how easy these governments find it to condemn what happens elsewhere but condone the very same thing 'at home'.

     

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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 4:20am

    Re:

    And the sudden removal of these services from the people under orders of the Government would have taken something running out of control to an entirely new level.
    It would have "maybe" stopped some of the bad actors but then also left other innocents virtually "blind" to what was happening around them.

     

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  4.  
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    G Thompson (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:14am

    Isn't it strange that only an Oppressive government calls itself non-oppressive whilst doing Oppressive acts, whilst what a reasonable human would call an oppressive Regime actually is secure in its own authority that it refuses to call itself non oppressive and actually revels in being called oppressive.

    To me any Government that tries to control its citizens from speaking out against what its citizens consider as authoritarian, ill-conceived, ethically wrong, or procedurally unjust is in itself Oppressive and should be removed by any means necessary up to and including force of arms. Though most "western" nations would consider that a Terrorist act, but consider it a "freedom fighter" act when it affects their philosophical & quasi enemies

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:19am

    Re:

    then the UK should be violently overthrown as its citizens has no freedom of speech and can be jailed for saying anything the UK doesn't agree with

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:27am

    The difference is simple. We (the government) are the good guys, so we can do whatever we want and still be the good guys. Those other 200+ governments in the world are all the bad guys, and can never be allowed to do the same things we do.

    Why else do you think the US government holds thousands of nuclear weapons, while going to war (or threatening to go to war) with those 3rd world countries like Iraq (opps, guess they were wrong about them, but that's ok, because the US government is the good guy, and Saddam was bad), Iran, and North Korea, that dare even consider making nuclear weapons?

     

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    abc gum, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:30am

    "and that the government might need some kind of "kill switch" on these services to stop the same thing from happening again."

    Why yes - of course ... Iron Fist to the rescue!
    Let us not look to why there was unrest, or what may have contributed to unrest because there would not be anything done to correct it - so why bother with even the pretense of doing something constructive.

     

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  8.  
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    G Thompson (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 6:07am

    Re: Re:

    And there is another problem, you instantly assume violence is the ONLY method when I stated "up to and including". That allows a wide range of measures that at one extreme mean grumbling into your beer at the local tavern/pub/swapmeet and at the other extreme citizen overthrow and execution against the wall of the leaders.

    Why assume violence is the only thing I meant or anyone means? Oh that's right its easier. It sells more paper, It allows more inane and re-active laws to protect said government. It makes the populace pause and reflect on that "violence is the only emns" so therefore there are no others.

    Civilisation and human society is strewn with both violent upheavals and non violent upheavals and all that is in between. Governents around the world are scared silly of the populace being informed, and able to question in an organised manner anything and everything they do. We the so called serfs call it Democracy, the governments and their quasi masters call it anarchy.

     

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    BentFranklin (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 6:25am

    The Arab Spring was largely against corruption that impedes social mobility. The US and UK do have more social mobility than other countries but it's decreasing, and to think that capitalism and democracy can't have corruption on a widespread scale is to miss the cause of many recent failures.

     

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    Hephaestus (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 7:09am

    Re: Re:

    This subject is one I have been studying for a couple years now.

    "And the sudden removal of these services from the people under orders of the Government would have taken something running out of control to an entirely new level."

    That happened in Egypt, the internet was shut down, the riots actually grew.

    By the time rioting happens it is already to late. The resentment, the anger, and fear do not happen over night, they take a long time to build. The underlying causes, in all cases, have been simmering and unresolved for years. All modern telecommunications does is accelerate the formation of these events. Typical government over response, escalation, and not addressing the underlying issues causes the cascade of events that follow.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 7:38am

    As the saying goes... when your government shuts down the internet, it's time to shut down your government.

     

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    Phlebas, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 9:13am

    The other way of interpreting this striking similarity is to conclude that the Arab regimes who resorted to oppressive measures were not ipso facto despicable.

    The blocking of communications and the curtailment of other civil liberties is simply the only resort for any regime, however benevolent or despotic it may be, when faced with a genuine threat of revolution - unless one thinks that a government is morally bound to concede meekly to any and all threats to its power (even if, say, the actors in question were a popular neo-Nazi group and a Western government).

    Of course, the US establishment likes to portray revolutions as "destined" to succeed, and the attempts of a regime to cling on to power as a cause of needless bloodshed. This only seems true, however, because the US irresponsibly chooses to provoke* and then sustain these revolutions - the US government itself being the only inevitable force at work. If it were merely a matter of precluding bloodshed by ending the conflict, the US government could just as easily have supported the Arab governments in enforcing order rather than aiding the rebels, or to the same effect made clear that there would be no intervention on either side (i.e. the Libyan rebels would not have fought and faced a very probable defeat had they not expected the US government to intervene on their side).

    *Note that the new Egyptian authorities' first act was to expel the US's "NGOs" from the country.

     

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  13.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 6:29pm

    I Find This Sort Of Comparison Demeaning

    The Arab Spring was—is—about ordinary citizens risking (and in lots of cases, losing) their lives trying to overthrow repressive governments.

    The London riots may have had some element of dissatisfaction about them, but they mostly seemed to be about looting consumer goods.

    To try to compare the two seems to be belittling the sacrifices being made by the Arabs.

     

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    abc gum, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 6:30pm

    Re:

    Pick up that can

     

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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 11:50pm

    Re: I Find This Sort Of Comparison Demeaning

    The London Riots were a combination of many factors, and while there were some people there to cause havoc for the sake of causing havoc there was an element directed at the repressive government of the UK.

    No one wants to admit it, but for a civilized country, they are leaning hard on the lowest of the low people while rewarding twats at the top for screwing it all up.

    While they aren't up to using death squads and disappearing people, there are different levels of repression and some people in the UK hit their breaking point.

    They are similar in the context of regular people feeling pushed to far and unwilling to take it anymore.

     

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  16.  
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    PaulT (profile), Mar 30th, 2012 @ 12:43am

    Re: I Find This Sort Of Comparison Demeaning

    "The London riots may have had some element of dissatisfaction about them, but they mostly seemed to be about looting consumer goods."

    If that's a ll you think they were about, I'd suggest you look for news in places other than tabloids. The riots, especially at the beginning, had a lot more to them.

     

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