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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Social Media and Riots

There have been continuing riots plaguing England over the last several days. The young, often poor rioters have been organized through texting and social media sites (like Facebook and Twitter). Because of their organization the rioters have been able to keep ahead of the police forces and move to new areas when the police begin to close in on their activities.

So, one of the solutions proposed by Prime Minister Cameron is to shut down the mobile texting services and social networks until order has been restored. That begs the question of whether or not these services are protected as free speech and what role they play in the fomentation of social unrest.

It wasn't all that long ago that Twitter was being lauded for its role in helping citizens of Egypt and Iran have a voice when the government wouldn't let them speak otherwise. Some even went so far as to provide dial-up numbers for people to call to circumvent the censorship of governments. The freedom of speech for the citizens of those countries was preserved by social media and oppressed people were given a voice that otherwise would have been quelled.

On the other hand, the rioters in England are burning, looting and attacking police. They are angry, ostensibly about the drastic spending cuts that reduce public money available to help the poorest citizens of Britain. But the anger is being translated into violence rather than peaceful protests. They are hurting people because they have been hurt themselves.

Does that give the government the right to shut down social media and texting? Does the abuse of the users dictate the availability of the service?

It gets to the point of whether the electronic communication is a right or a privilege. We're fine saying that freedom of speech extends to the spoken word and printed text, but these moments are testing whether the freedom extends to the internet and mobile devices as well. If Britain gives in to the pressure and blocks these avenues of communication, what will that spell for the future of free speech.

Is it worth the cost, as great as it is, of the rioters burning and looting, to preserve the freedom of speech?

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