The British government is considering taking a page out of the Arab dictator playbook by blocking social media to help quell the unrest that has erupted in England.
The government claims that social media networks such as Twitter and Blackberry instant messaging (BBM) are making it easier to encourage and organize rioting, which makes it difficult for authorities to regain control of the riot-weary country.
An example of a BBM that encouraged writing was obtained by . It read: "Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!)…Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother... SALUT! if you see a fed... SHOOT!"
How much of an impact BBMs like these have on people’s desire to riot is impossible to determine. Nonetheless, Prime Minister David Cameron is taking steps to what he believes is an urgent matter.
“Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill,” PM Cameron said in a statement to parliament. “And 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.”
Mike Butcher, a technology journalist and digital adviser to London mayor, Boris Johnson, who has called BMB the “thug’s Gutenburg press,” has been extremely vocal about the dangers he believes Blackberry is posing to the British public. “I'm just feeling annoyed…and powerless about @UK_BlackBerry BBM and its role in all this. Bleah,” he tweeted on Monday.
And in an interview with the BBC quoted in the Daily Mail, Butcher said, “Mobile phones have become weaponized in their capability of spreading information about where to target next.”
“There is evidence that BBM is an encrypted, very secure, safe, fast, cheap, easy way for disaffected urban youths to spread messages for their next target,” he continued. “It's like text messaging with steroids - you can send messages to hundreds of people and once it's gone from your phone it cannot be traced back to you.”
Free speech groups are understandably concerned over the possibility that the UK government will limit a popular means of communication, which they believe only worsen the overall situation.
“If you try to stop people communicating, you create more of a problem,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, an organization promoting freedom of speech online, in an interview with Bloomberg. “People are angry because their freedoms are threatened.”
And because this move is coming so soon former American-backed Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was globally condemned for blocking Twitter during the Arab Spring period of unrest, commentators are comparing England to Egypt.
Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York School of Journalism and columnist for The Guardian, elaborated on that sentiment in a column on Thursday. “If you take these steps, what separates you from the Saudi government demanding the ability to listen to and restrict its BBM networks? What separates you from Arab tyrannies cutting off social communication via Twitter or from China banning it?” he said.
“When anyone's speech is not free, no one's speech is free…Censorship is not the path to civility. Only speech is.”
And on the internet, people have voiced their anger – and sarcasm – over the potential move. On Reddit.com, a commenter named "sinfultrigonometry" said, “If we're going down this road, surely we should be able monitor hedge funds and banks' emails to look for corporate fraud. Last time I checked the tax evasion cost this country a lot more than the riots.”
It is unclear what measures the British government will take to limit communication during the riots and whether or not it will be only individuals or groups who will be targeted. However, Blackberry has admitted to helping the government in the process.
“We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can,” tweeted @UK_Blackberry on Monday.
Three people have been arrested by police through social media investigations.