The looters and rioters who torched Britain’s neighborhoods are “doing Big Brother” a favor by giving the government more latitude to destroy citizens’ rights and freedoms, says WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“Great Britain has turned itself into an Orwellian 1984 during the last decade, yet all those cameras and anti-terror laws could not prevent this recent chaos,” he told the Star from England, where he is awaiting the outcome of his appeal against extradition to Sweden, which wants him for questioning in connection with a sexual assault case.
British Prime Minister David Cameron touched off a fierce debate Thursday by suggesting that the rioters, who have called up mob attacks through social media and instant messaging, could be shut down in cyberspace.
“When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them,” he told the House of Commons. “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 popular BlackBerry Messenger — produced by Canada’s Research in Motion — had given police a new headache because of its closed network, he added: “we’ve got to examine that and know how to keep up with them.”
Some MPs agreed, including Tory Louise Mensch, who tweeted that Cameron’s plans were “common sense” and if Facebook and Twitter were carrying messages that incited violence “the world won’t implode” if they were shut down for an hour or two. BlackBerry earlier announced that it was co-operating with police.
But advocates responded angrily that Cameron was “shooting the messenger,” and covering up the government’s inadequate responses by blaming social media and BlackBerry’s free messaging service that is widely used by younger and poorer Britons.
“The naive public often is ready to sacrifice its privacy, and laws safeguarding basic freedom and rights in exchange for safety, guaranteed by the state,” Assange said. “Now it is clear that governments cannot keep their promises.”
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Britain has extensive security laws that date back to the days of IRA terrorism. Surveillance grew in the early 2000s after the 9/11 attacks, and “7/7” assault on London transport that killed 52 people in July 2005. But as the riots spread this week, Cameron said he had asked the police if they needed additional powers.
Assange said the British government was paying the price “for creating a society that denies young people both responsibility, trust and proper challenges,” adding “it is time to rethink rather than restrict things even more. The real problems, which led up to the riots, can only be solved by the whole community, not the government or police.”
While Britons are outraged by the destruction of the riots, many are reluctant to blame the new media.
“Digital technology did play a role in providing rioters with an organizational tool,” said sociologist Frank Furedi of University of Kent. “But the more important factor has been the role of the police or more specifically the disorganization of the institutions of law and order.
“Those who are involved in ‘recreational rioting’ are not abnormal feral youngsters but young people who simply have no stake in their community.”
Experts say that in any case shutting down social media sites or the Internet is unlikely to work.
“The first option requires every social media firm to cooperate with government,” says an article in politics.co.uk. “Even if that were achievable individuals would still be able to create a new account.”
And it said a Chinese-style “final option” of shutting down Internet access to turbulent regions would be so drastic “it would require highly controversial new powers to implement.”