David Cameron said in the House of Commons that the Government is going to consider a social media kill switch:

Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media.

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

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.

I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.

This has all the hallmarks of a Dangerous Dogs Act response. (That is Whitehall slang for a piece of poorly-conceived legislation which is implemented hastily to respond to a public outcry.)

There are many reasons this is a bad idea.  Here are two.

First, in a year in which social media has played  an important role in enabling citizens in Tunis and Egypt to overthrow their governments and, we all hope, move towards greater freedom and dignity, this would set an irresponsible precedent internationally. Which dictator or autocratic regime does not accuse protesters of ‘plotting violence, disorder and criminality’?  Do we want to make it harder for citizens around the world to organise themselves to overthrow repressive governments?

Second, social media has also played a positive role over the last few days. Twitter was used to organise groups of responsible citizens who went out on the streets to clean up after the riots. (David Cameron called the ‘broom army’, organised through social media, ‘the best of British’).  Pledgebank is being used to raise money to rebuild the iconic Reeves Corner building which was burned down in the riots.   I’m told that switching off the mobile phone networks after the 7 July bombings contributed to the chaos.

When the Egyptian government was reported to have shut down social networking sites in a bid to stop the unrest there spreading, the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said:

I would urge the Egyptian government, and I have urged the Egyptian government, to respect rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. It would be futile over time to try to suppress such things.

Perhaps when the Government reflects on the overall balance sheet of the impact of social media over the last year, they will conclude that on balance it has been a force for good.

What a contrast to Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister in Norway, who said this after the (much more tragic) violence there:

The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.

Update: Here is Jeff Jarvis in the Guardian.

 

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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7 Comments

  1. Owen , dont forget the Grand Daddy of rushed thru legislation, the Official Secrets Act 1911, still blighting our lives in subsequent iterations.

    BTW interesting Cameron having a go at police about not being on the streets ” not about cuts four years in the future”

  2. You have in the UK a social problem present in Canada. We are raising a subgroup of kids who have low self-esteem, a high level of selfishness or narcissism and limited empathic skills. What the social media has done is emphasise this phenomenon by making it too easy to interact with only those people one agrees with.

  3. It’s somewhat of an ironic turn of events from the Cameron government which has so strongly pushed for transparency and the free flow of data/information. Does this hurt the UK’s (or at least Cameron’s) legitimacy as a leader in the open government/open data/transparency movement?

  4. Don’t recall David Cameron suggesting that tabloids should be banned because of the phone hacking scandal. Most politicians seem to focus on traditional broadcast media and leverage social media as an extension of this one way form of communication. Yet, despite the echo chamber effects, social media is becoming a venue for deeper insight and meaningful dialogue. While many were discussing root causes and potential solutions, the prime minister attempted to over simplify to make it sound like he was on top of the situation and acting fast. Something that works well on TV. Yet, makes politicians look like buffoons when compared to more thoughtful engagement on social media.

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