With the UK’s Prime Minister reportedly considering ‘shutting off’ social media sites in an effort to stem the rising tide of riots and other violence in London and across the country, the UK government has seemingly acknowledged that merely enforcing the law doesn’t fit their job description. Throughout history, when governments have lacked the finesse to enforce the law, they have often asked for — or simply siezed — bigger and bigger sledgehammers to control bigger and bigger sets of behaviours.
I have been struck by how some people have thrown petrol bombs (aka “Molotov cocktails”) during the London riots. Clearly, petrol can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill. When people use petrol for violence, we need to stop them. So I have an idea: let’s shut off the flow of petrol. Maybe we’ll just shut it off for the people who are about to make a petrol bomb. Or maybe we’ll shut it off for anybody we suspect might make one. Or maybe we’ll just shut it off for everybody for awhile to keep our streets safe. I’m not going to specify it any more narrowly than that, because who knows just how widely we might want to control the flow of petrol? And while we’re at it, let’s ask the police if they need any other new powers.
Am I serious? Of course not!
But here are the facts of what was actually said earlier today in Parliament by UK Prime Minister David Cameron:
Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck [sic] by how they were organised via social media.
Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.
And 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.
According to separate reports, the country’s top law enforcement official, Home Secretary Theresa May, is meeting with representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry to discuss, as Forbes puts it, “the responsibility of social media if they are used as a tool to fuel rioting”.
In the US, legal precedent was set as far back as 1891 that telephone companies themselves have no legal responsibility for the content of telephone conversations, because it is the person speaking who is transmitting the message (Electric Despath Co. v. Bell Telephone Co.  20 S.C.R. 83). And as I understand it, in both the US and the UK, common law rules of liability for innocent disseminators or common carriers (the US term) — i.e., organisations transmitting or distributing messages without knowledge of or control over their contents — clearly limit the carriers’ liability to the extent that their intent is to deliver messages, not to express whatever it is that is in the messages.
But more importantly, the UK already has laws on the statute books prohibiting incitement to violence — with the Serious Crime Act 2007 introducing three statutory offences of encouraging or assisting crime (and retiring the common law notion of incitement).
Within this framework, social networks are irrelevant. It is already against the law to “plot… violence, disorder and criminality”. Prime Minister David Cameron, however, doesn’t appear to believe that enforcing the law is quite enough. Now he has explicitly highlighted the free flow of information as a legitimate target for law enforcement officials.
This is exactly what other governments have done, throughout history, when they have lacked the finesse to enforce the law of the people: they have sought bigger and bigger sledgehammers to control larger and larger sets of behaviours until finally they find a way to combat not just the original behaviour that was violating the law, but also huge swaths of other behaviours.
So, in this country: what next? How much more power will the government enact for itself before it will feel competent to enforce the laws we already have?
That’s my take on the philosophical side of this. Don’t get me started on the technological side of it all and the astounding level of hubris it must take to think the UK government is well equipped to start preventing the free flow of information from anybody who really wants to get a message out.
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