A new survey finds wide support in Britain for shutting down Twitter and Facebook during times of civil unrest. Following rioting in August 2011 in which London Police say social media and BlackBerry email were used to organize, the rioters, police want the ability to disable the networks when they feel a need exists to protect the public.
The Unisys survey found 48 percent of respondents "completely agree" that during periods of unrest "providers should temporarily shut down social networks to prevent coordinated criminal activity." If you include those who "somewhat agree" with the statement, the figure increases to 70 percent.
The survey results may signal a backlash over the perception of how social networks are used and could, over time, result in real changes in how they are used, accessed and regulated. Businesses that depend on these services, whether wired or wireless, should monitor these developments closely, especially if they do business overseas. Freedom of speech means different things even among our closest European friends, and we should not expect them to follow an American example.
According to Parmy Olson's story on Forbes.com:
In a separate survey question, 46% of respondents said the authorities should have open access to data about social network users to prevent organized criminal activity. And if you thought Europeans flew the flag for privacy, 42% believe social network providers should get more information on people using their services before allowing use, while 49% think the authorities need more resources to monitor our online behaviour.
Breaking down the survey numbers of course shows a big discrepancy between 18-24 year olds, of which only 28% agree to a temporary shut down of social media during civil unrest, while 60% of seniors are all for it. The survey, part of Unisys’ U.K. Security Index, was based on questions put to 973 people aged 18 and up, from randomly selected British households. The survey was conducted by telephone between Sept. 2-7 this year.
The very suggestion that a government might shutdown Facebook, texting and Twitter sends freedom of speech advocates and the digerati into fits, but support for the shutdown is also understandable. Who wants violent demonstrators -- many more criminal than political -- using their mobile devices to organize torching homes and businesses, as London police alledge happened?
Representatives of Facebook, Twitter and RIM say there is no evidence their services were used to organize riots.
I am not close to the U.K. situation, but closer to home in Oakland, Calif., outsiders have taken advantage of peaceful protests by the Occupy movement to commit crime and violence then blamed on the non-violent protesters. While there are many ways to organize a flash mob, SMS text and social networks offer tremendous bang for the effort required.
Shutdowns because of unrest could be widespread or quite local, as when BART officials disconnected wireless service during an August 2011 protest in the rail system's San Francisco stations. While world events have shown some connectivity is almost always possible, the ability to organize protests online could be hampered simply by shutting off wireless access in specific areas, such as the San Francisco train stations.
The British survey was taken only weeks after the London riots. Perhaps shutting down social media sounded like a good idea when tempers remained hot and damage fresh. My bet is if the survey is retaken in early 2012 the results will be different. Still, social media and wireless are powerful communications tools, whether used for good or ill. If the latter prevails too often, public outrage and regulation are almost certain to follow.
For American officials, this is a no-win situation. If turning off wireless in selected stations can keep commuter trains running on time, I really see no problem with it. Your right to protest, I think, stops with my ability to get home in time for dinner. Disrupting rail service isn't just making your feelings known to government, it's hurting people. Of course, after BART took the action, there were more protests -- this time of the action itself -- and the FCC has been investigating.
BART said it had the right to limit free speech to protect the public. Within reason, I agree. Still, I appreciate that social networks have become a tool for organizers of protests everywhere and have done tremendous good in advancing the cause of freedom. As I said, this is a no-win and an area were social norms and regulations are moving more slowly than our use of technology. This will not be solved quickly.
(Disclosure: I also blog about general tech issues at Forbes.com.)