Silencing social media: Censorship or maintaining order?

If you want confirmation that Facebook and Twitter are viable communications tools, look no further than the London riots. British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested cutting off access to the sites as a way to prevent rioters and looters from communicating and coordinating activities.

Closer to home, San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit recently blocked wireless signals at four stations to undermine expected protests over a fatal police shooting — and met some retaliation from angry hackers the next day.

Blocking social media and mobile phones is similar to the old-school jamming of radio signals during combat to disrupt the enemy’s communications. But now the lines of communication are so diverse and portable that jamming them all is next to impossible. Anyone with a smart phone can carry access to Facebook and Twitter in a pocket, and the sites are also as big as life on tablet computers.

Beyond the technical complexities, blocking such communication raises serious questions about civil liberties.

An article by James Temperton in Computeractive provides a range of opinions about Cameron's call to block social media, citing Cameron's own rationale and some voices in favor and in opposition. But a CBS opinion column by Devin Brown gets to the heart of the opposition's argument:

"It looks like Cameron is taking a leaflet out of NYPD's book and exaggerating it a bit," Brown writes. "Social media isn't the only thing Cameron is after, he is also requesting that broadcasters hand over unused footage to police in connection with the riots in order to bring more criminals to justice, which has been vehemently protested when attempted previously. "

Ultimately, Brown concludes, social media is blameless as the rioters, reacting to a fatal police shooting,  used "their phone and computers to organize an uprising. The uprising itself was not born from social media. "

In England, however, some members of Parliament seemed likely to take Cameron’s suggestion to heart.

“I don't have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media, just as I don't have a problem with a brief road or rail closure,” wrote Conservative MP Louise Mensch on Twitter.

In San Francisco, the feared protest never materialized. Whether that’s due to the pre-emptive blocking of wireless signals is anyone’s guess. A transit spokesman quoted in another "Hillicon Valley" post by Sasso said BART took the step to protect citizens.

On July 3, BART police shot and killed a man they said was wielding a knife. Officials began to believe a public protest was developing, so they blocked wireless signals for a few hours on Aug. 11 in an attempt to thwart it.

Many people objected to that approach as heavy-handed. Even a member of BART’s board of directors said it was a step too far, the Associated Press reports.

"I'm just shocked that they didn't think about the implications of this," said board member Lynette Sweet, as quoted in the AP article. "We really don't have the right to be this type of censor. In my opinion, we've let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that's not fair."

The Brookings Institute tries to walk a tightrope in an opinion piece penned by John Villasenor. It's always possible that wireless service may be unavilable in a public space, he writes, and the public must accept that reality. "Intentional shutdowns to thwart free expression, however, are a different matter, and the criticisms that have been directed at BART are generally reasoned and accurate. But it is also important to recognize that those criticisms are made from the safety of hindsight," he writes,

Meanwhile, hacking group Anonymous apparently decided to turn anger into action by breaking into BART’s website and posting the contact information for many of its customers. Just how many people were affected is a little fuzzy, Ian Paul reports in PCWorld.The numbers range from about 2,400 names ona site that claims to contain the data dump, while a Twitter account linked to Anonymous boasts that it is 120,000. Arguing against that claim is the fact that the hacked web site is for a service that has only 55,000 registered users, according to BART.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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