In the wake of the riots, several British Conservative MPs, and indeed PM David Cameron himself, have suggested a harsher regime of state control of both messenger services and social networks. Their suggestions have attracted widespread derision from almost everybody who either knows something about the Internet and communications more broadly, or who places any value on freedom of speech, assembly and communication and regards these things as foundational to any democratic society.
However, the a yet vague proposals have gained support from one quarter: China. The Chinese state-controlled media have suggested that the Conservative Party’s undemocratic suggestions prove that the Chinese state was right all along about controlling the Internet and that now these events are causing liberal democracies to support the Chinese model of highly regulated provision (via Boing Boing).
This is pretty much what I have been suggesting is happening for the last 2 or 3 years – see here, here, here and here. It is just that now, the pretense of democratic communication is being dropped by western governments. And just in case David Cameron doesn’t get it – and he really does not appear to right now, no, it is not a good thing that the Chinese government likes your ideas: it makes you look undemocratic and authoritarian.
David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today and associated comments, show that he has a really superficial grasp of what has been going on in British cities, mostly whilst he was on holiday and unwilling to return to demonstrate any kind of leadership.
First of all, he’s done the usual knee-jerk authoritarian and technophobic thing of blaming Blackberry and other messaging services. He has indicated that “Ministers would work with the police and MI5 to assess whether it would be right to stop people communicating via social network sites ‘when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality’, and had “asked the police if they needed new powers in this area”. When the Egyptian government cut off access to social networking sites recently, western governments were quick to condemn this as evidence that this regime was exactly the kind of authoritarian government that should be brought down. However, in Britain, apparently not. And closing down communications systems just because some people are using them to send messages you don’t like is several steps beyond things like wiretapping. It is a massive and idiotic overreaction. Let’s hope the ‘assessment’ is, in the end, more considered…
Another face-palming moment was provided by the appeal to US experts in gang culture. Now, no-one is going to deny that there were gangs involved in this, nor that gang culture is an issue in British cities. But, first of all, the US is no place to look if you want lessons on controlling gangs, or more importantly, how to create a society in which gangs seem like a less attractive option in the first place. And secondly, there is an assumption that UK gang culture is just like US gang culture, just because they are both gang cultures. Why not look instead to other European countries without significant gang problems and ask what it is about those societies that work? Unfortunately that is the kind of question that would lead to fundamental challenges to UK socio-economic policy, and that’s exactly why the questions and responses will remain superficial.
These kinds of things will annoy the libertarian right and the left respectively, however at the same time, the UK Prime Minister is taking some strange stances that threaten to alienate his own centre-right supporters, in particular in refusing to halt cuts to policing budgets already proposed as part of his austerity measures (never mind massive cuts to social services to inner city youth, which will also be pushed ahead regardless).
It’s hard to see who remains that he is appealing to here…
I’ve been in the papers and on radio and TV a bit in the last few days here in Canada, talking about the London Riots, both as a ‘token Brit’ and a surveillance expert. I’m happy to talk about my feelings as someone from Britain and I’ve made it clear to people that I am neither a technical nor a legal expert, but the conversation inevitably ends up in those domains and others which are really outside my expertise – and I’ve had to be careful what I say.
I’ve generally stuck to three lines:
1. That these riots don’t provide simple moral lessons, they are neither politically-motivated or just about ‘crime’, but they do have roots and implications which are profoundly political – this is about consumerism, class, inequality and exclusion.
2. That you can’t blame Blackberry. That’s like blaming the postal service for hate-mail. The problems for RIM here are twofold: bad public relations from being associated with rioting, and how much it is prepared to sacrifice the privacy of its users to help UK police in an effort to counter the bad PR.
3. That all the UK investment in video surveillance didn’t help stop these riots (see my previous posts).
People like Chris Parsons are the kinds of people that the media need to talk to about the technical issues, and there’s a really fantastic and detailed post from his blog here on Blackberry and security and privacy issues. On legal issues, there’s no-one better than Michael Geist on things like lawful access. His website is here. Michael writes a regular column for the Toronto Star and I was quite amused that when the Star called me yesterday, I had to remind them to talk to him about lawful access issues! The best sociological piece I have seen on the causes is from Zygmunt Bauman.
That said, here’s some links – There’s a podcast here on the Financial Post, which also has a good discussion with Tamir Israel of CPIC.
On the more social side here, syndicated in lots of local and regional papers.
And the usually strangely edited piece in my local paper, the Kingston Whig-Standard, here, also featuring my colleague, Vince Sacco.
There’s been a lot of controversy over this summer about the threats made to several large western mobile technology providers mainly by Asian and Middle-Eastern governments to ban their products and services unless they made it easier for their internal intelligence services and political police to access the accounts of users. The arguments actually started way back in 2008 in India, when the country’s Home Ministry demanded access to all communications made through Research in Motion’s (RIM) famous Blackberry smartphone, which was starting to spread rapidly in the country’s business community. Not much came of this beyond RIM agreeing in principle to the demand. Then over this summer, the issue flared up again, both in India and most strongly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. RIM’s data servers were located outside the countries and the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said that RIM was providing an illegal service which was “causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions”. Both countries have notorious internal police and employ torture against political opponents.RIM initially defended its encrypted services and its commitment to the privacy of its users in a full statement issued at the beginning of August. However, they soon caved in when they realised that this could cause a cascade of bans across the Middle-East, India and beyond and promised to place a data server in both nations, and now India is once again increasing the pressure on RIM to do the same for its internal security services. So instead of a cascade of bans, we now have a massive increase in corporate-facilitated state surveillance. It’s Google and China all over again, but RIM put up even less of a fight.
However, a lot of people in these increasingly intrusive and often authoritarian regimes are not happy with the new accord between states and technology-providers, and this may yet prove more powerful than what states want. In Iran, Isa Saharkhiz, a leading dissident journalist and member of the anti-government Green Movement is suing another manufacturer, Nokia Siemens Networks, in a US court for providing the Iranian regime with the means to monitor its mobile networks. NSN have washed their hand of this, saying it isn’t their fault what the Iranian government does with the technology, and insist that they have to provide “a lawful interception capability”, comparing this to the United States and Europe, and claiming that standardisation of their devices means that “it is unrealistic to demand… that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without that capability.”
There is an interesting point buried in all of this, which is that the same backdoors built into western communications systems (and long before 9/11 came along too) are now being exploited by countries with even fewer scruples about using this information to unjustly imprison and torture political opponents. But the companies concerned still have moral choices to make, they have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which is not simply a superficial agreement with anyone who shouts ‘security’ but a duty to their customers and to the human community. Whatever they say, they are making a conscious choice to make it easier for violent and oppressive regimes to operate. This cannot be shrugged off by blaming it on ‘standards’ (especially in an era of the supposed personal service and ‘mass customization’ of which the very same companies boast), and if they are going to claim adherence to ‘standards’, what about those most important standards of all, as stated clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 of which states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence,” and in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”