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net.wars: "Phony concerns about human rights"

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 12 August 2011


Why can't you both condemn violent rioting and looting *and* care about civil liberties?

Wendy M Grossman

One comment of David Cameron's yesterday in the Commons hit a nerve: that "phony" (or "phoney", if you're British) human rights concerns would not get in the way of publishing CCTV images in the interests of bringing the looters and rioters to justice. Here's why it bothers me: even the most radical pro-privacy campaigner is not suggesting that using these images in this way is wrong. But in saying it, Cameron placed human rights on the side of lawlessness. One can oppose the privacy invasiveness of embedding crowdsourced facial recognition into Facebook and still support the use of the same techniques by law enforcement to identify criminals.

It may seem picky to focus on one phrase in a long speech in a crisis, but this kind of thinking is endemic – and, when it's coupled with bad things happening and a need for politicians to respond quickly and decisively, dangerous. Cameron shortly followed it with the suggestion that it might be appropriate to shut down access to social media sites when they are being used to plan "violence, disorder and criminality".

Consider the logic there: given the size of the population, there are probably people right now planning crimes over pints of beer in pubs, over the phone, and sitting in top-level corporate boardrooms. Fellow ORG advisory council member Kevin Marks blogs a neat comparison by Douglas Adams to cups of tea. But no, let's focus on social media.

Louise Mensch, MP and novelist, was impressove during the phone hacking hearings aside from her big gaffe about Piers Morgan. But she's made another mistake here in suggesting that taking Twitter and/or Facebook down for an hour during an emergency is about like shutting down a road or a railway station.

First of all, shutting down the tube in the affected areas has costs: innocent bystanders were left with no means to escape their violent surroundings. (This is the same thinking that wanted to shut down the tube on New Year's Eve 1999 to keep people out of central London.)

But more important, the comparison is wrong. Shutting down social networks is the modern equivalent of shutting down radio, TV, and telephones, not transport. The comparison suggests that Mensch is someone who uses social media for self-promotion rather than, like many of us, as a real-time news source and connector to friends and family.

This is someone for whom social media are a late add-on to an already-structured life; in 1992 an Internet outage was regarded as a non-issue, too. The ability to use social media in an emergency surely takes pressure off the telephone network by helping people reassure friends and family, avoid trouble areas, find ways home, and so on. Are there rumors and misinformation? Sure. That's why journalists check stuff out before publishing it (we hope). But those are vastly overshadowed by the amount of useful and timely updates.

Is barring access is even possible? As Ben Rooney writes in the Wall Street Journal Europe, it's hard enough to ground one teenager these days, let alone a countryful. But let's say they decide to try. What approaches can they take?

One: The 95 percent approach. Shut down access to the biggest social media sites and hope that the crimes aren't being planned on the ones you haven't touched. Like the network that the Guardian finds was really used – Blackberry messaging.

Two: The Minority Report approach. Develop natural language processing and artificial intelligence technology to the point where it can interact on the social networks, spot prospective troublemakers, and turn them in before they commit crimes.

Three: The passive approach. Revive all the net.wars of the past two decades. Reinstate the real-world policing. One of the most important drawbacks to relying on mass surveillance technologies is that they encourage a reactive, almost passive, style of law enforcement. Knowing that the police can catch the crooks later is no comfort when your shop is being smashed up. It's a curious, schizophrenic mindset politicians have: blame social ills on new technology while imagining that other new technology can solve them.

The riots have ended – at least for now, but we will have to live for a long time with the decisions we make about what comes next. Let's not be hasty. Think of the PATRIOT Act, which will be ten years old soon.


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).