Blocking Social Media – Yes Or No?

Posted on November 2, 2011

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Two statements, two very different approaches to freedom of expression on the web.

The first: “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.”

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And the second: “We reject the view that government suppression of the internet, phone networks and social media at times of unrest is acceptable.

“In fact we would go further, and boil this concept down to a single proposition: that behaviour that is unacceptable offline is also unacceptable online, whether it is carried out by individuals or by governments.”

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These comments might look like they come from different eras or different regimes.

But believe it or not they are the remarks of two of the most senior members of the UK government – David Cameron and William Hague.

What’s more, they were made a mere 10 weeks apart.

They demonstrate the evolution in the Government’s approach to social media and today’s remarks from Hague (the second quote) are the clearest indication yet of the direction the UK has chosen.

The Prime Minister made his strongly-worded commitment to investigate cracking down on social media sites back in August after the riots and he’s been edging back from it ever since.

When he said it, he said instantly caused a split between those who considered it a sensible way of preventing future crime and disorder and those who saw it as a dangerous and very real attack on civil liberties.

It was an example of the way ministers can find they have two strongly-held principles that end up contradicting each other: the desire to be tough on crime and the desire to defend freedoms.

Just months earlier, Cameron had praised the role social networks played in the Arab Spring – and though the revolutions and riots are two very different examples, it exposed the difficulties in negotiating when the social web should be suppressed and who – if anyone – can legitimately make such a decision.

It also made it tough for UK ministers to lambast countries who censor the web, which is exactly what William Hague wanted to do in his London cyberspace speech today.

But lambast he did. And in doing so, made it clear which web philosophy the UK government has plumped for: open, not closed.

:: UPDATE: David Cameron’s own remarks to the conference hours later backed up the same point – emphasising the need to tackle cyber securty without going “down the heavy-handed route”.

Praising the role web freedom has played abroad, he made no mention of the need to crackdown on the web during unrest at home.

What a different 10 weeks make!

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