After several days of destructive riots throughout the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron is practically tripping over himself in his eagerness to sacrifice liberty for security. In a speech before an emergency session of Parliament today, Cameron highlighted concern over rioters’ use of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter:
...when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So 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. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.
Exactly what kind of government censorship of social media Cameron has in mind is unclear, but he went on to urge Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry to remove messages that might incite further unrest across the country. British Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly meeting with all three companies to discuss their “responsibilities” in light of the UK riots. Twitter has steadfastly refused to bow to government pressure to shut down the rioters’ accounts or delete their Tweets, referring to a blog post written by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and General Counsel Alex McGillivray earlier this year, near the start of the Arab Spring:
Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.
It was a sentiment shared by Cameron as recently as this February, when he gave a speech in Kuwait in which he asserted that freedom of expression should be respected "in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square." The Prime Minister’s 180-degree shift on freedom of expression unfortunately places him one step closer to the growing, worldwide cohort of politicians and despots seeking solace in censorship.
EFF urges Facebook, Blackberry, and Twitter to fight for the rights of their users. In large part, this means refusing to censor speech, protecting users' data unless compelled to do so by law, and informing users if their data is sought by the government. But the companies' hands may be tied if Cameron takes advantage of hysteria over the riots to pass shortsighted legislation meant to protect Britons from the so-called “misuse” of social media.