Tuesday, August 16, 2011

UK social media crackdown could violate human rights, is poor strategy.

photo from the London and UK Riots public pool on Flikr

Police forces in the United Kingdom arrested more than 2,500 in response to rioting last week in London, according to the Guardian’s Datablog.

The Datablog’s latest information shows that rioters caused at least £100 million in damages (equivalent to $163 million). The blog’s data also indicates that the majority of those arrested for rioting were born in the 1990s, and lived in predominantly “underclass” neighborhoods.

Reacting to the civil unrest, Prime Minister David Cameron began steps to crack down on social media.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized by social media,” Cameron said in a speech before parliament August 10. “Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill, but it can also be used for ill, so we are working with police and intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

UK politicians and law enforcement officials are due to meet with representatives from major social networking players including Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry, reported Forbes.

Here is the video of Cameron’s speech before parliament, posted by The Telegraph.

But according to the current version of the United Nations Declaration of Human rights, a crackdown would not be right. According to Article 19 of the Declaration, known as the “Right to Communicate,” states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

The Declaration of Human rights was ratified in 1948 by the United Nations. While it isn’t a treaty, the Declaration serves as the basis for international laws on human rights. It also defines the human rights that are mentioned in the UN’s founding charter, a document which UN member states have signed and are bound to uphold.

The United Kingdom, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, likewise is bound by the agreement.

Most recently, the United Nations added comments to Article 19 that clarified what the Right to Communicate should mean in the age of digital communications. The comment, filed July 21, stated that the Right to Communicate defends political discourse, journalism, artistic expressions and the discussion of human rights. But the provision also protects communication regardless of medium, as “they include all forms of audio-visual as well as electronic and internet-based modes of expression.”

“States parties should take account of the extent to which developments in information and communication technologies, such as internet and mobile based electronic information dissemination systems, have substantially changed communication practices around the world,” the document states. “There is now a global network to exchange ideas and opinions that does not necessarily rely on the traditional mass media intermediaries. States parties should take all necessary steps to foster the independence of these new media and to ensure access of individuals thereto.”

There is, however, one critical restriction to free communication as it is outlined in the Declaration of Human rights. And that is a restriction on the right to communicate “for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.”

At the same time, the United Nations specifies that restrictions cannot be over-broad, and governments who restrict the right to communication “must demonstrate in specific and individualized fashion the precise nature of the threat, and the necessity and proportionality of the specific action taken, in particular by establishing a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat.”

The conservative UK government might argue that it is within the bounds of international human rights to stop messages between members of a mob who are “plotting violence, disorder and criminality.” But blocking communications and disrupting protests fit the modus operandi for authoritarian regimes, not free, democratic states. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “authoritarian” as “Favourable to the principle of authority as opposed to that of individual freedom.”

Authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia used the same tactics described by Cameron amidst the social uprising known as the “Arab Spring.” In those cases, the governments blocked wide swaths of social networking sites, or terminated the country’s connection to the World Wide Web entirely. Traditionally, governments who stifle communication among their citizens do not do so in a limited fashion.

Cameron’s statement suggests that social networks contributed to the rioting in London. Yet blocking the internet might only exacerbate problems. The recent uprising in authoritarian countries demonstrate that when internet communications are blocked amidst a revolt, social unrest only increased.

“In some cases, most notably in Egypt, the move appeared to prompt more angry protesters into the streets,” wrote the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal quoted the director of research of the Packet Clearing House, an organization that studies global Internet traffic, who said “It shows they’re responding to the moment rather than thinking strategically, and any government that has devolved to that point is probably on its way out.”

Social media censorship strategy draws criticism

The similarity of Cameron’s recommendations to the actions of North African regimes was not lost on the internet community. Jeff Jarvis, who writes a column on new media for the Guardian, wrote of his skepticism of those who would be in charge of deciding which comments and photos would be censored.

“Beware, sir. If you take these steps, what separates you from the Saudi government demanding the ability to listen to and restrict its BBM networks? What separates you from Arab tyrannies cutting off social communication via Twitter or from China banning it?” Jarvis Wrote.

Other commentators say the best way to stop rioting in London is not adopting the authoritarian method of shutting down social networks, but rather, addressing the underlying reasons why social unrest occurs.

Peter Nowak, writing for Canadian Business, called internet censorship a “bone-headed idea,” and wrote that it would only lead to more anger and violence. But he also pointed to deep-rooted economic inequalities as the cause of the riots.

“Further eroding civil liberties is likely to fuel what I believe to be the underlying cause of the unrest that’s popping up around the globe: a deep frustration with a system that is seeing the world’s growing wealth increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer people,” Nowak wrote. “That system may have worked in the past but since the wide-scale rise of the Internet over the past 20 years, the masses are more aware of what they don’t have than ever before. And they’re not happy about it. Taking away more of their rights is only going to make them madder.”

Actor-comedian Russell Brand made similar points in his editorial for the Guardian, arguing that the youths who took part in the violence had destroyed parts of London largely due to depressing economic prospects, along with a strong sense of not belonging. He pointed to the disparity between the harsh prosecution of looters and the lax treatment of London bankers during the 2010 financial collapse as a major source of discontent.

“These young people have no sense of community because they haven’t been given one. They have no stake in society because Cameron’s mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there’s no such thing. If we don’t want our young people to tear apart our communities then don’t let people in power tear apart the values that hold our communities together,” he wrote.

“As you have by now surely noticed, I don't know enough about politics to ponder a solution and my hands are sticky with blood money from representing corporate interests through film, television and commercials, venerating, through my endorsements and celebrity, products and a lifestyle that contributes to the alienation of an increasingly dissatisfied underclass. But I know, as we all intuitively know, the solution is all around us and it isn’t political, it is spiritual. Gandhi said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’”

Russell brand donated his earnings from writing the column to aid cleanup efforts.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Cameron announced a new initiative to “stamp out gang culture,” and blamed the unrest on “slow-motion moral collapse.”

This author is an organizer with Communication is Your Right, an informational and advocacy campaign to raise awareness of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and specifically the Right to Communicate.