London Riots: Britain Weighs Personal Freedoms Against Need To Keep Order

Governments from China to the authoritarian regimes challenged by the Arab Spring have sought to control social networking sites, fearing their power to connect and organize dissidents hungry for democracy. But Britain is weighing an unprecedented move to intervene in the personal communication of its citizens after concluding just the opposite: that social media, including BlackBerry Messenger and Twitter, are undermining its vibrant democracy.

The plan touched off an immediate firestorm in Britain’s thriving social media community, igniting charges of an assault on freedom of speech. Prime Minister David Cameron, however, made clear that he felt the greater threat was allowing violent speech to circulate.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Cameron said in an emergency session of Parliament on Thursday, during which he announced that officials were working with the intelligence services and police to look at how and whether to “stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Cameron said: “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.”

Police in Britain have been monitoring social networking sites — and pouncing. Authorities in England and Scotland, for instance, have arrested more than a dozen youths on suspicion of using the Internet and text messages to incite unrest. In Greater Manchester, hit hard by rioting Tuesday night, the police fought fire with fire, issuing this warning from an official police Twitter account: “If you have been using social networking sites to incite disorder, expect us to come knocking on your door very soon.”

The Twitter universe in Britain was among the first to respond to Cameron’s announcement, with irate comments flooding the nation’s digital space. Spoofing Sky News — Fox News’s sister network in Britain — one Twitter user employed classic British humor as political statement, sending out a fake bulletin: “Breaking: Sky News understands David Cameron has been in talks with the Chinese government to share web-filter technologies.”

Furthering a nascent debate here over civil rights in the aftermath of the riots were additional emergency measures outlined by Cameron.

The government announced that it would start slapping “gang injunctions” — now used for adults — on underage teens, using court-ordered restraining orders to ban them, for instance, from wearing gang colors or walking around their neighborhoods with attack dogs.

Police have also been authorized to force suspicious-looking people who have their faces covered by, say, bandannas and “hoodies” — the uniform of British hooligans and gang members — to identify themselves. The government is also reviewing the possibility of imposing curfews.