On Thursday, I intervened on the Home Secretary during her statement in the Commons about the use of social networking during the riots and disturbances in London and elsewhere. I wanted to make the point, in the confines of a short interjection, that there is a difference between open networks (Twitter, Facebook etc) and closed networks (Blackberry Messenger) and that future consideration of their advantages and disadvantages to public order should be distinguished as such. However, and I can not be clearer than this – not for one second do I think they should be closed down. Monitored, yes; accessible to the police in certain circumstances, yes; shut down, no and especially if we want our voice heard when we condemn the practices of other regimes that restrict access to social networks or a free press.
During the recent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, we in the West, with our wide and free access to technology, social media and non-state controlled communication networks congratulated those who used, for example, Twitter to their advantage. In fact the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said in the Commons the following:
“there is no doubt that social networking sites have played an important role, particularly in Tunisia. That was very apparent from the young people I met and talked to there, many of whom, especially the young women, had taken part in the revolution on social networking sites rather than out in the streets. They were very proud of the way that they had co-ordinated their messages in the days before the revolution in order to intensify the action and demonstrations that took place. Those sites have played an important role and it is something that we should be positive about overall. The world is changing in a very significant way: people of all ages have access to communicating in that way and it is important that their freedom to do so is preserved. One way in which the Egyptian authorities have gone wrong in the past couple of weeks has been in trying to suppress access to the internet and misuse mobile telephone networks. People now have the right to use those things in a relatively open way”We cannot have it both ways. We cannot on the one hand think that protests against an oppressive regime (a regime that viewed the “protests” as violent civil disturbances) organised on social networks is fine and should be encouraged and congratulated, but on the other hand violent civil disturbances in a democracy organised on social networks is not OK and should be curtailed. I do not for one minute condone the use of social networks by criminals, and the activities of last week were shocking, but the answer is not to oppress the use of Twitter, Facebook and even Blackberry Messenger, but to understand them, embrace their capabilities, and where necessary allow the authorities to use social network messages as evidence against perpetrators.
Many police forces, my local Kent police being one, used technology to great effect earlier on in the week. Clearly open networks allowed for arrests to be made for inciting public disorder, as well as providing the police with a means of monitoring potential targets. But they also enable the police to get clear messages out to the public. With rumours flying around the social networks about looting and rioting, police forces and other authoritative sources, were able to dispel the myths using the same networks that were propagating them. If networks were closed, as some suggest, then the rumours would still be flying around via other means of communication (dare I mention via good old fashioned oral communication) but without the instant truth also being known, and in a bitesize 140 characters.
I worry more about closed networks such as Blackberry Messenger, which is a safe, secure and encrypted instant communication tool, and one that I use myself. It is as far as I am aware impossible to monitor in real time, thus taking away from the police the intelligence advantage of Twitter etc. But I see no reason why it should not be used to prosecute those involved in criminal activity, and if there is not already existing legislation then this is a potential area of exploration.
So like my colleague Robert Halfon, I feel very uneasy about shutting down networks in times of civil disobedience. I campaign for greater civil liberties in other countries, so that fellow citizens of the world can enjoy the freedoms we in the UK have. It would be hugely hypocritical, and a massive victory for the oppressive dictatorial regimes we as a nation criticise, if we were to control social networks enjoyed by the law abiding majority because they can be abused by a criminal minority.