In 2011, the world has witnessed instances of mobile network and Internet blocking during riots or threats of civil unrest and violence. These actions are, at the very least, highly controversial, and it is intriguing to consider the pros and cons of doing so. Is it worth limiting citizens' freedom of speech to prevent potentially harmful information from being disseminated? Does social media contribute to chaos, or help policy prevent it?
Perhaps Ivan Lewis, shadow secretary of culture in the House of Commons, put it best
: "Free speech is central to our democracy, but so is public safety and security."
Those who argue that blocking Internet access is a necessity in such circumstances stand behind the basic premise
that the free flow of information can sometimes do more harm than good. Recently, mobile reception on the San Francisco BART public transit network was shut down after a local police officer was involved in a highly controversial civilian shooting
, resulting in the death of 45-year-old Charles Hill, who had been threatening the officer with a knife. Authorities say they blocked mobile reception on the train because
"Organizers...stated they would use mobile deviecs to coordinate their disruptive activities...A civil disturbance during commute times...could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions." In this situation, blocking mobile service proved to be an effective way of keeping unrest from growing, or potentially dangerous mobs from forming.
However, the mayor of London, in response to the recent London riots
, argued that "On the contrary...social media and being able to follow things on Twitter is of some intelligence benefit to the police." With the ability to track who is planning to gather where and why, policy may be able to react more proactively, rather than resoting to completely shutting down Internet or mobile data access.
A recent collaboration initiative
between EU authorities, Research in Motion (the creator of chat application Blackberry Messenger), Twitter and Facebook is leading to increased engagement between social media and authorities. The aim of the project is to balance the privacy of users with laws such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, under which social media companies may already have to hand over some data about their users to the authorities. With this social media partnership, the companies are discussing
"...whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."
In the end, it is a catch 22 for authorities: by cutting off mobile data access, the number of violent protestors at a given demonstration may be lessened. But doing so also cuts off access to useful information that may help keep people safe.
Which side of the debate do you fall on? Should authorities be able to cut off mobile data access during times of social unrest?