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Thursday, 18 August 2011

The convenient scapegoat barring technology and social media

The convenient scapegoat


Barring technology and the social media is not the answer to quelling unrest.
Image representing Research In Motion as depic...Image via CrunchBase

IS the social media and free flow of information via digital technology good or bad? It depends on where it happens and whom it affects.

Text messages, Twitter and Facebook were hailed as powerful tools against repression when the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya took to the streets to protest against their authoritarian rulers in February.

British Prime Minister David Cameron declared then that the Internet and social media belonged to people who had “enough of corruption, of having to make do with what they’re given, of having to settle for second best”.

But when riots and anarchy broke out back home in London and elsewhere in Britain, the reaction was patently different.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck 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. When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”

And Cameron told an emergency session of the British Parliament: “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.”

The UK police have rounded up close to 5,000 people and taken about 1,000 rioters and looters to court since the ugly wave of unrest and arson hit.

Britain’s entire national intelligence machinery – including its Security Service, or M15, which usually handles espionage and terrorism – is now focused on identifying the culprits and trying to prevent future occurrences of disorder.

The authorities have been generally blaming the misuse of social media for the mayhem; it appears that Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) was the most effective tool used because of its tight security features.

The BBM application provides password-protected messages to individuals or groups that can only be read with a PIN.

During the height of the riots, British MP David Lammy used Twitter to call for the halt of the service by tweeting: “BBM clearly helping rioters outfox police. Suspend it.”

RIM, Facebook and Twitter have since given assurances that they would comply with the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the country’s privacy laws.

Besides his government’s willingness to consider shutting down or blocking access to social networks, the British PM also pledged a “zero tolerance” system of policing under which no form of law breaking would be condoned.

Critics have been quick to censure Cameron’s call for curbs and tough measures as smacking of hypocrisy and as a violation of free speech, civil liberties and human rights.

Index on Censorship news editor Padraig Reidy slammed it as “a bizarre and kind of knee-jerk reaction by the government”.

“More recently, we’ve seen this kind of thing in Egypt,” he said.

Actually, the most recent incident of shutting down a phone network happened last week in the United States.

The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shut down the cell phone service at four stations to prevent a protest rally over the shooting of two men by police.

BART deactivated the service from 4pm to 7pm to stop protest organisers from communicating.

Meanwhile, China, which was subject to Western sermons over its fierce crackdown on dissent in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, has raised safety concerns over the 2012 Olympics to be staged in London.

The Chinese media has responded to the UK riots with “a mixture of shock and schadenfreude”, as fittingly described by the Daily Telegraph.

“The West has been talking about supporting Internet freedom, and opposing other countries’ government to control this kind of websites. Now we can say they are tasting the bitter fruit (of their complacency) and they can’t complain about it,” wrote a People’s Daily commentator.

But the real issue to be addressed by governments everywhere is distrust brought about by the gap between the haves and have-nots and unfairness, whether real of perceived.

Ian Williams, a veteran journalist and analyst, described it aptly when he said the UK government’s posturing ignored the fact lawlessness in the highest places was at the root of the riots.

“The rioters who were interviewed and people on the streets all remarked upon members of parliament stealing expenses from the tax payer, mostly with impunity, although some went to jail,” he said when interviewed by Press TV.

“They look at the bankers making billions of dollars and getting away with it; they look at Rupert Murdoch, the head of News International, hacking innocent people’s telephones, and getting away with it.
“So basically the message that is being sent from the ruling classes of Britain is that the law is not there to be obeyed.

“So to start shouting that the lesser people - the people who steal televisions - should be locked up for life whereas the people who steal whole industries and banks and countries should be given knighthoods and peerages for it is not really a sustainable one on the streets I suspect.”

> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Edgar Allan Poe: The nose of a mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.

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