The Corner

Cameron’s Conclusion: To Curb Speech?

From the BBC:

The government is exploring whether to turn off social networks or stop people texting during times of social unrest.

David Cameron said the intelligence services and the police were exploring whether it was “right and possible” to cut off those plotting violence.

Texting and Blackberry Messenger are said to have been used by some during this week’s riots.

Rights groups said such a measure would be abused and hit the civil liberties of people who have done nothing wrong.

The prime minister told MPs the government was exploring the turn-off in a statement made to the House of Commons during an emergency recall of Parliament.

Mr Cameron said anyone watching the riots would be “struck by how they were organised via social media”.

This is the response of the British government to the events of the past week? Can it really be true that the conclusion that Cameron and co. have drawn is that the problem is . . . electronic communication? With a reaction such as this, it is no small wonder that vast swathes of the British public feel so disconnected from their government, tired of being brutally sold out by a multi-partisan conspiracy never to look the truth squarely in the face. The world is upside-down: We are living through a week in which even the Guardian has identified the problem, but in which an administration calling itself “conservative” just used an emergency session of the recalled Parliament to propose cracking down on free expression. 

That the government in a liberal democracy even has to ask the question of whether such a move would be “right” is terrifying in and of itself, but the very notion that one can cut off communication for just the bad eggs in a society is patent and dangerous nonsense:

In the statement, Mr Cameron said law enforcement was considering “whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality”.

Except that we don’t live in the fictional world portrayed in Minority Report, and there is no such thing as pre-crime. Thus, the only way that the state could know that it wished to switch off the services of those “plotting violence, disorder and criminality” is constantly to monitor all communication by everyone–guilty or not–or peremptorily to cut off the entire communication system when a riot starts. Neither of these are acceptable in a free country. It is an irony of the highest order that, when faced with the unequivocal sight of marauding criminals, the government considered effective law enforcement a step too far, but it now has no qualms about unilaterally restricting a fundamental right.

It is not Twitter, or Blackberry Messenger, or text messaging — or, for that matter, parchment and ink — that are to blame. They are delivery mechanisms only. It is what is being delivered via them that is the problem. The issue we need to address is that we have teenagers happy to set fire to buildings, not that those who would cause chaos are able to text their friends the meeting point. Cameron’s proposal attacks the symptoms at the expense of the cause, and drags the majority of law-abiding citizens down into the gutter with their tormenters. The prime minister claims that we should be “struck by how they were organised via social media.” I am also struck by how the fires were started with matches, the windows were smashed with shoes, and the three innocent men in Birmingham were murdered by a car, but is anyone seriously suggesting that we outlaw these things, too?

As Dan Foster would say, a society that is scared to get thieves and thugs wet, but is considering restricting everybody’s speech, is too sick to live. 

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