In the last six months we have cheered the use of Twitter and Facebook during the Egyptian revolution. How they were both used to get and spread information about what was happening and where, allowing the opposition to organize. When the Egyptian government tried to shut them down, the western press and government accused it of denying the Egyptians their rights. At the time few questioned how the west would react under similar circumstances. Lately the answer to this question is started to become clearer and the picture in the mirror is a bit ugly.
Unfortunately last week London and several other cities were rocked by violence. Riots broke out in several parts of the city, according to multiple stories Blackberries phones along with Twitter and Facebook were used to coordinate the rioters. Blackberries were used because messages are encrypted and even RIM doesn’t have the key. Blackberries are also cheap compared to iPhones or Android phones. Prime Minister David Cameron, suggested that social media including Twitter and Facebook maybe limited during riots. Leaving aside technical issues of trying to do this, which there are many, is this the right thing to do and does it cause more problems than it solves. Now you could argue as Prime Minister Cameron did that the rioters were a bunch of thugs and hoodlums and you don’t have the right to use technology to commit criminal acts. However isn’t this what governments like China and Syria label opposition and democracy protestors. If this policy is implemented in Britain, then what credibility does it have to protest a similar action in China, couldn’t the Chinese say we’re just following your lead. Not to mention the fact that if you limit social media (what ever that means) during unrest you are not only punishing the guilty but also the innocent. In fact those who are less tech savvy are more likely to be hurt. Tech savvy users can usually can find their way around government’s attempt to block services using various methods including Tor or VPN services.
Clearly blocking social media in a whole city or even a neighborhood is difficult both technically and socially. However what if you just want to block a single building, like a train station or a subway, well Bart, the San Francisco rapid transit system found a way, they simply shut down the cellular services in the subways. They did this when they heard rumors there would be a protest against the shooting of an unarmed passenger by a Bart policeman They simply shut down the system base station, disabling the wireless network. They did this without informing the various wireless carriers in the area or making any public announcements. So for about three hours there was no cellular service. Commuters couldn’t make calls to home, or work or even 911. Nor could you surf the web or doing any work that was online. The FCC is now investigating the shut down as a possible violation of the Communication Act of 1934, which bans radio or cellphone jamming.
Clearly social media has become a thorn in the side of both democratic and undemocratic governments. The issues are not only technical but also political. The ongoing battle between activist and various governments will continue well into the future as they continually leap-frog each other.