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.
A really interesting map on the website of the US monthly, The Atlantic
, illustrating the relationship between density of video surveillance cameras (CCTV) and recent incidence of rioting in London. There are many things one can get even from a simple map like this. It’s worth noting in particular that Wandsworth and Harringey are the residential boroughs with the highest concentration of CCTV, and have been hit by rioting. There are also places with both greater and less than average density of CCTV which have not had rioting.
Whilst you have to be careful not to mistake correlation for causality, and bearing in mind that this is not a statistically tested verdict, the main tentative conclusion one can draw is that there seems to be no relationship between the presence and density of CCTV and the occurence of rioting. This might seem like a fairly weak statement, but it is yet more evidence that CCTV has little deterrent effect on crime of this sort (and of course, the rioting is not only explicable as ‘crime’ anyway).