‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.’ (Barlow, 1996)
David Cameron’s reaction to the popular uprising that took place across the United Kingdom through August 2011 has further damaged his nations claim to moral authority on the international circus.
Through calling for tougher than usual sentences for rioters, the British Prime Minister instigated a policy which not only interferes with the British judicial system but has also resulted in unusually long jail sentences for petty crimes committed during the riots. Much discussed cases include a university student being jailed for six months for stealing a pack of bottled water and a pair of youths facing four years in jail for setting up a fake ‘riot’ as an event on Facebook. Sentences such as these are unprecedented in recent British history.
Such a severe backlash has cut Cameron into the mould of the very world leaders he denounced and helped topple during the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa over the preceding months. While Gaddafi passed off the revolutionaries in Libya as “rats and mercenaries“, Cameron similarly described those who took to the streets in anger at the state of government, available opportunities and social exclusion (amongst a complex web of other reasons) as merely thieves and vandals. These are surely the words and actions of a leader under pressure choosing to assert authority over his people.
While the British PM crushed those who dared to ‘loot’ against him in the British courts, his scramble to assert power also crossed into the digital sphere, adding himself to a long queue of world leaders in announcing an ambition to censor internet use.
“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.” (David Cameron, 11/08/2011)
As a British citizen with a blind belief in the notion of ‘freedom of speech’ I immediately reacted with horror at any attempt to censor online debate. It is not so much the idea that one can use censorship to stop ‘violence…and criminality’, which may have sympathies amongst many in the UK, but more specifically ‘disorder’. How does one define ‘plotting’ disorder? This raises questions about how far this could be abused by the government. Will people be able to use the Internet for anti-government debate or to organise peaceful protest without worrying about the loss of social media privileges? There has already been a plethora of argument surrounding power abuse of the terror laws since 9/11. Much discourse has appeared online which has echoes these concerns. Indeed, Axel Bruns refered to Cameron’s statement as a moment of ‘headdesking’ which he defines as:
‘what you do when somebody says or does something so stupid that your instant reaction is to smack your head on the surface of your desk, repeatedly.’ (Bruns, 13/08/2011)
While Bruns articulately describes the contradictory and thoughtless nature of Cameron’s statement through his article, on further analysis one cannot restrict a call to restrict Internet usage to an act of thoughtless ‘headdesking’. Instead one has to read the speech as deeply rooted in political history and being a part of a current trend in global governance. The reaction of the ruling elite to technologies which they cannot control has always been severe. Indeed, Deibert and Rohozinski’s statement highlights a reason for this:
‘Throughout much of modern history, governments have wrestled with the tensions of the relentless drive to build new technologies and the unpredictable and often counterproductive consequences that flow from them for their power and authority’. (2010:3)
Indeed, new communication technologies have often resulted in leaders attempting to try and reassert control over the given sphere. While Stalin dismissed the instillation of the telephone system, describing it as the greatest “instrument of counterrevolution in our time” (Dizard, 1986:157), China have long adopted a policy of restricting and monitoring access to the internet and was indeed a policy used by many Middle-Eastern and North African governments to attempt to control the uprisings over the last year. Indeed, Libya and Egypt blocked Facebook and Twitter and since 2007 Syria has attempted to restrict online activism by banning access to Facebook. A policy they lifted but then reinforced to attempt to tackle protests that still rumble on in Syria’s cities.
While the countries mentioned above are not considered ‘western democracies’, the similarities between these examples and Cameron’s intentions when he called for a social media crackdown cannot be ignored. A recent event that took place in in San Francisco offers a useful snapshot of what could happen when communication censorship does takes place in a ‘western democracy’. In a similar scenario to the one which sparked the riots in north London, protesters took to the transport system in July 2011 to protest the shooting of a commuter by transport police in 2009. The decision was taken by the authorities to shut down wireless signals at stations where protests were taking place. This resulted in angry reprisals by some of those at the riots, both through the organisation of a second protest and a damaging hacking of the transport system’s website. This underlines that any attempt by the British Government to censor the online public sphere could realistically result in further uprisings both on the streets of Britain and through citizens aggressively reclaiming powers online.
After seeking advice and witnessing the angry backlash that Cameron’s comments created, it has been decided by the British home office that they will not seek extra powers to clampdown on social media for the time being. While the debate is far from over, this saga has displayed how digital freedom is becoming a basic ‘right’ in the opinion of global citizens. It is becoming as deeply rooted in the minds of the people that they should enjoy freedom of communication online as much as it is also in the minds of governments that these new technologies are posing a threat to their control.
Instead of trying to censor discourse within the digital public sphere and aligning himself with leaders in the world that he should not, Cameron should think positively and creatively towards modern communication and facilitate it to connect with those who took to the streets. The protesters used Twitter in a utopian democratic model to organise demonstrations and mobilise their political message. It is a shame that Cameron was unable to do the same in return. Maybe if Cameron adopted a revised ideological stand towards modern communication technology, he may go some way in avoiding alienating the very youth that will one day vote him out of number 10.
Barlow, John Perry. 1996. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. http://homes.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html
Bruns, Axel. 13 August 2011. Don’t Shoot the Instant Messenger http://theconversation.edu.au/dont-shoot-the-instant-messenger-david-camerons-social-media-shutdown-plan-wont-stop-uk-riots-2854
Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski. 2010. Beyong Denial: Introducing Next-Generation Information Access Controls in Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power Rights and Rule in Cyberspace. MIT Press
Dizard, Wilson. 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Computer Challenge in The Washington Quaterly (Volume 9, Issue 2)