There is no Such Thing as Society
David Cameron tried to blame this year’s violent riots in England on the family – or lack of discipline and good solid values therin – forgetting that dearest Maggie’s maxim “There is no such thing as society” effectively dismisses any kind of social unit. Um, The Family. (Woops.)
He also suggested his government may seek to block user access to Twitter and other social networks in the event of similar future crises, to prevent violent calls to action from going viral. While this sounds well within general principles of law and order, in practice it would probably have about as many black holes and failings as Melbourne’s fraught Myki system, with its tendency to overcharge well-meaning passengers (check out this wonderful new website created by a disgruntled but clever uni student, which tracks the half-baked system’s myriad errors). If a government-implemented, multi-million dollar transport ticketing system – a seemingly basic thing that exists in just about every city large enough to have its own public transport system – can’t even do its job, I don’t see the type of advanced and quick-to-react filtering necessary for these proposed objectives happening properly anytime soon. (Drawing a long bow? I don’t know, I just wanted to slag off Myki.)
Just say an innocent person were to have their communication pathways curtailed in such a hypothetical future scenario, through error or simply bad judgment, the act may go far beyond merely inconveniencing an individual. During a crisis, not being able to contact, say, family to let them know you’re alright, may prove very distressing – or worse – for the individual in question.
There is also a murky grey area as to what exactly constitutes bad behaviour – where to draw the line between a bit of good ol’ hearted fun and incitement to criminal activity. For example, a more boisterous friend of mine was once apprehended at the airport and questioned for several hours after stupidly making allusions to anarchist bomb plots during a flight home. In other words, the tendency to take language too literally in matters of security is not new. Perhaps we need to introduce some kind of guage for a sense of humour when recruiting law enforcement professionals in future.
Minefield, I say.
The internet is of course not the only means of communication available to us in high-stakes situations. Responding to the riots, Crikey correspondent Bernard Keane wrote that “No one would seriously talk about targeting the phone system because it is being used to coordinate illegal activity, but the internet is considered fair game.”
How wrong he was. Only weeks after England’s riots, San Francisco government authorities blocked mobile phone networks to quell a protest against public transport provider BART. (Clearly I had a bad experience on the bus today.) The protest was organised following the shooting of an armed man by BART security guards. BART’s response to the planned protest (which never materialised anyway) was widely criticised as a violation of constitutional rights to freedom of speech.
Some constitutional scholars are likening BART’s actions to an unlawful suppression of First Amendment speech — a digital form of prior restraint. Others, however, say BART’s move would probably survive a court challenge, and will likely be copied by other government agencies as the use of mobile technology and social networking by protesters grows.
If the latter is indeed the outcome, what this incident (along with the political fallout after England’s riots) highlights is insufficient legal frameworks in the area of digital rights and freedoms. This void will become increasingly problematic as we – as a global society – further entrench ourselves in digital realms, increasingly living aspects of both our personal and professional lives via digital media.
Central to these trends, and the reason why we get so up in arms at the thought of having our personal communications technologies neutered by authorities, is the growing sense that access to these technologies is some kind of basic human right*. Remember, there was a time when parents didn’t install iPhones in their six-year-olds’ lunch boxes, “Just in case of emergency”. This idea of access to communicative media as a personal right underlines the argument behind governments all over the world advocating for national broadband networks**, and it also largely informs the political sentiment behind open-source software, although this is more concerned with the means of production of these tools, rather than access to them (something for a later discussion).
The internet (though just one example of a communicative tool) is also largely anarchic, so when a liberal democratic state seeks to enforce its power in these realms, the outcomes are unlikely to be straightforward. It’s a whole different world out there, a whole other jurisdiction (or lack thereof). We don’t react very well to limitations online, because we’re so used to not having them when we go there. Communications technologies feel like the ultimate freedom: they allow us to extend our private selves – engage our personal and professional relationships – and any intrusion on this is heading into dangerous waters indeed.
I’m sure David Cameron has been shitting himself for the last three months as to how the riots were able to happen so quickly and violently, and how the British government might prevent anything similar from happening in the future. It will be interesting to see what kind of legislation is developed in these tricky areas as a result.
Communications Technologies: Criminal or Detective?
In a strange twist of irony, while the UK government ultimately did not seek to increase any legislative powers over social media networking sites, it has been able to use them to efficiently track and convict perpetrators of some of the crimes in question, as a measure of deterrence as much as anything else. Similarly, in the United States in August, a large group of youths robbed a Maryland 7-Eleven, but most of them were captured within days after police posted security camera footage online. The irony is that, as with England’s riots, the robbers are believed to have organised the incident via social media.
Any means of communication can clearly be put to good use or to bad. Research from The Guardian shows that during England’s riots, Twitter activity was mostly of a sentiment against violent, criminal acts – leaning instead towards spreading helpful alerts during the crisis and organising the riot cleanup in its aftermath. But then, social media’s potential for use in either direction is probably obvious to everybody but a technological determinist.
I suppose the moral of the story is, if you’re going to use social networks to incite (and therefore, according to British law, commit) serious crime, make sure your personal online account doesn’t lead straight to your front door. I bet those Anonymous folks could give you some pointers – if only you could find them.
*There I go again with some good ol’ first world centralism, but let’s take that as a given for the purposes of context and relevance.***
**Well, okay, so that might also be economically motivated.
***Course, I should stop leaving this same disclaimer in every bloody post about technology, and just put it in a page. One day. When I get round to writing those “About” pages.****
****In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m going through a bit of a PoMo Footnotes Phase. Sign of madness, or sign of the times? You decide.