Thursday, 25 August 2011

Twitter safe after all

It appears that the government has abandoned plans - if indeed it had any plans - to blockTwitter and Facebook during times of riot and civil strife. Theresa May met representatives of both companies earlier today, but "government plans to shut down social media sites during emergencies" (as one, now edited, report had it) were not even on the agenda. Instead, the Home office is now stressing that "the government and police have not sought any new powers." Instead there was much talk of extending existing co-operation. A facebook representative described the meeting as "a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on internet services."

So that's all right then. Louise Mensch will be disappointed, but few other people. In time-honoured fashion, the government is finessing a U-turn by claiming that it never intended to do what it strongly implied it was on the point of doing, and that the change of heart (but then there was no change of heart) had nothing to do with the overwhelmingly negative reaction. Or, perhaps, the Chinese government's ironic support for the idea. Well, that's politics. We can just pretend that David Cameron never said anything to suggest that he thought it a practical suggestion.

More sensible members of the government must have been fully aware that giving the police power to turn off Twitter would be chillingly authoritarian, pointless, counterproductive and send out all the wrong messages. That it would destroy, at a stroke, any moral standing Britain possessed to criticise China or Iran for engaging in similar cyber-censorship. That it would inconvenience the overwhelming majority of social media users whose sharing of jokes and gossip, status updates and timewasting banter continued as usual throughout the period of the riots. That it would rob the police of a significant source of information, as well as of easy arrests of people stupid enough to boast about their plans (real or imagined). That it would do almost nothing to prevent the spread of disorder at the price of causing widespread irritation. That it wouldn't work anyway (does anything the government does with IT ever work?)

Or if they weren't so aware, they very quickly became so.

I'm prepared to believe that the authoritarian tosspots who infest the Home Office bureaucracy, the people who gave us X-ray scanners and still pine for ID cards, would enjoy the erotic power rush of turning off a major communications network at the flick of a switch. They'd probably like to turn off the telephones, interrupt the mail and shoot carrier pigeons, if it seemed to them that any potential looters might thereby rendered ignorant of the location of disturbances. But then what about the TV news coverage? If anything encouraged people to come from afar to join in the disturbances or bag themselves a pair of unpaid-for Primark shorts it was surely the dramatic images of burning buildings and smashed windows, not the largely middle-class ruminations of Twitter users.

As it happens, someone (the Guardian, actually) has gone and done the research. An analysis of more than 2.5m Twitter messages relating to the riots - that's a fairly small proportion of all the messages flying around the network - revealed that the vast majority were reactive: warnings of places to avoid, general commentary, re-tweeting of police messages and the like. No surprise there. If Twitter and Facebook did play a part, it was in inspiring and co-ordinating the voluntary clean-up operation afterwards. There's more circumstantial evidence that some users of Blackberry Messaging used that closed network to arrange nefarious acts. But is anyone suggesting that, were it not for BBM, there would have been no riots? I don't think so.

The original announcement, like much of the reaction to the riots, was a knee-jerk. It had not been thought through. Unfortunately, even a throwaway remark can be construed as a pledge. Politics often comes down to a choice between an embarrassing U-turn and continuing with a bad policy. I'm glad they chose the U-turn.