Over the last few weeks people round the world have been wondering what has happened to England. As the images of burning buildings beamed across the globe, I got texts from friends abroad asking – what the hell is going on in the UK?
But it’s not just the extraordinary scenes of rioting, looting and violence we have have had on our streets that has been causing questions to be asked. It is also the frightening backlash we have seen from the government, press and legal system.
Loz Kaye is the leader of the Pirate Party UK.
It has been the thrust of the Pirate Party movement’s analysis that freedom of information, and its control, is at the heart of the political battleground for the 21st century. The reaction has shown how far this is now the case.
It seems that whenever there is some new crisis that sections of the media and politicians seek to find the cause in technology, despite the obvious flaw in trying to blame behaviour on things rather than people. There was a feeble attempt to try and pin rioting on an old favourite — gaming. Utterly without any evidence whatsoever, one police officer was quoted as thinking the root was Grand Theft Auto. However one device in particular ended up being demonised — the Blackberry.
Casting around for a name for the disturbances — possibly because there have been riots in Tottenham before RIM existed — they have been dubbed by many as ‘The Blackberry riots’. The change of fortune from being the favourite phone of executives and Obama to being called “the rioter’s handset of choice” by Andrew Hill in the Financial TImes is as striking as it is preposterous. Perhaps it does show the perils in a business environment too fixated on branding and trademarks. At the height of the hysteria it was suggested that Blackberry had become “weaponised”, as if the little black handsets had become flamethrowers.
No one has demonstrated that BBM had a key role in organising disorder — if such a thing is even possible. Why it was thought by David Lammy MP for example that blocking BBM would work, and not simply lead to people finding another method to communicate by makes no sense. A myriad of events, actions and exchanges of messages took place. One may as well as well talk about the “kids running down streets” riots or the “people talking to each other about stealing stuff” riots. The key is the message, not the (Blackberry) messenger. If enough people are determined to burn things down, they will find a way, whether it is via BBM, telephone or smoke signals.
Many authoritarian solutions to the trouble were called for — curfews, bullets on the streets, water cannons. Even bringing in the army — perhaps it had escaped people’s notice that we are fighting wars right now. But the one thing that took centre stage was controlling the public’s flow of information. Rick Falkvinge has already written about proposed social media blocking and its implications in this blog. You can find more background on this subject in the piece I wrote for the Open Rights Group : “How the government turned anti social media”. In the 21st century power no longer comes from the barrel of a gun. It comes from the blocking of a message.
Even since I finished that article to time of writing, just days later the situation has become even worse. All of us who care about civil liberites have been left stunned by the sentences of 4 years prison for posts on Facebook. The charge was incitement to riot, but is vital to point out that no riot took place due to the updates. So in just days we got from the demonisation of social media for causing riots, to the criminalisation of social media even though it didn’t cause riots. Yes, the posts were obnoxious and irresponsible. But it is evident that this sentencing is wildly disproportionate, and in fact tears up the rule book in such judgements. That minister Eric Pickles said they caused people to be “frightened” shows how far all sense of proportion is being lost. If anything left people with nightmares it was the rolling 24 hour TV news coverage with breathless commentary. I think Mr Pickles has probably made the calculation that turning that off might be a vote loser, and a step too far. But it seems that it is difficult to count on anything anymore in the current climate.
It is important to remember that all of this has a context.
The Pirate Party movement has been consistently pointing out the dangers of restricting the free flow of information. In the United Kingdom we saw the Digital Economy Act, with powers to ultimately throw whole households off the Internet forced through Parliament in days, without proper democratic scrutiny. This is the kind of ‘3 strikes’ law seen in various places in the world, and explicitly criticised by the UN as an infringement on freedom of speech. But the (yet to be enacted) law also has a web blocking element to it, which is significant in the light of the current “turn off Twitter” debate.
At the core of our objections to this type of law is how it has created the intellectual and political environment for censorship. It’s not because have a fetish for IP law- current copyright legislation is merely a symptom of a wider malaise. A recent example was the Newzbin2 judgement forcing ISP British Telecom to block access to a site which, after all, only has links not content.
This has exposed how deep confusion in the coalition is on the subject of restricting access to websites. First Conservative minister Ed Vaizey enthusiastically welcomed the Newzbin2 judgement. Then days later Lib Dem minister Vince Cable announced the web blocking elements of the DE Act are to be dropped as being unworkable. Then just days later again we have the Prime Minister signaling curbs on social networking. The government is in utter chaos on digital rights and don’t even appear to realise it. Most nonsensical of all is the Lib Dem media and culture co-chair Don Foster, who both does and doesn’t support web blocking in a recent press statement: “Site blocking may sometimes be necessary, but that doesn’t excuse the Digital Economy Act’s sorry attempt to enable it.“
The new Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition arrived with a promise to turn the attitude to civil liberties around from the ever more restrictive politics of the Blair and Brown years. But like so many of the promises made before the 2010 election this is now looking hollow. Once again our politicians are trying to find new ways to restrict our access to information.The real damage to the United Kingdom may well last well after the broken glass has been swept up, it will be damage to our freedoms done by those we should trust to protect them.