There has been a sarcastic and quite frankly ridiculous reaction in some places to the PMs speech yesterday which mentioned, amongst many other things, an investigation into the role of BBM and other social media in co-ordinating violent crime in the recent riots. I have made my own views clear some days ago on the subject and am glad that the PM is listening to the electorate in our civilised country, who suggest that use of BBM amongst rioters is contributing to the scale of the problem we face. The perception in some quarters is that we are blaming social networking technologies for the riots, in reality this is a long way from the truth.
In fact David Cameron’s suggestion is to investigate the monitoring of such communication when used for criminal means. To those who believe this makes us a police state in the vein of Syria and Iran, I would ask if this not the role of the police and the responsibility of government in a civilised society? What is being suggested is simply an extension of the powers to monitor mobile communications in circumstances where they are being used for criminal purposes, in a similar way to such monitoring in India, Saudi Arabia and other nations. The difference between the UK and other countries is the use to which the information gained is put. I do not believe for one minute that this will be used to oppress people here.
There is also a lack of international understanding of what is happening in the UK riots. Young people, without the emotional intelligence to understand the consequences of their actions, are hearing about the opportunity to get something for nothing and loot shops, on the heels of organised crime. This magnifies the problem of inner city criminality tenfold and makes the job of our police force that much more difficult. In a war situation the first thing we do is disrupt enemy communications, why is this action any different if it has the support of the vast majority of people in a democratic country?
And Ii reply to the absurd implication that we british believe that removing social networks will solve the problem over night, I would point out the difference between dealing with short term disorder and at the same time recognising the longer term contributors to it. What is recognised here, and conveniently ignored in the analysis of many more remote from our situation, is that organised gangs have used the tools available to them to make their crime more difficult to police, both by being able to manage a gorilla type campaign in our inner cities and in encouraging teens to join them and confuse the issue still further.
It is suggested, in some less than intelligent circles, that to be truly safe from the riots we will need to ban Internet access altogether, along with email, telephones, and carrier pigeons. These implications are a ridiculous exaggeration designed to give certain writers and their readers a feeling of superiority, rather than an intelligent contribution to the discussion. Equally, to draw a parallel between what is happening in the UK and the wholesale banning of Internet access in countries like Egypt during their recent revolution, is irresponsible at best and remarkably stupid at worst. After all this action is being taken, and is supported by, a democratic electorate.
Instead there is an honest discussion currently in the UK about the underlying causes of the unrest recently, an understanding that social factors have contributed to it, and that sections of our society feel marginalised. I suggest these sections of society exist in most developed countries to one degree of another. There is also a recognition that our unarmed police force need to work differently to those in other countries where the most effective deterrent available is to shoot dead citizens who are involved in violent crime.
I would ask those who believe that the consideration of managing communication technologies in a civilised country is a removal of free speech to answer these questions:
If someone in our society owns a car and misuses this privilege by driving dangerously or killing someone with it, is it not acceptable to remove this privilege to protect others?
If criminals were frequenting a particular public house to plan and launch theft and violent crime, would not the police have a responsibility to monitor this communication?
If police work is about the monitoring of society and of identifying criminal actions, planning and communication, why, in an age where new technology gives these criminals different ways to organise themselves, is it not acceptable to extend these powers in a transparent way to deal with the new avenues available for criminality?
One solution espoused by those across the Atlantic would be to arm our police force, and provide a greater deterrent to this kind of crime. I recognise that this may negate the need for monitoring such communications as many of the people who rioted recently would not have risked it for fear of injury or death. This would perhaps calm the situation in the short term, but as has been proved countries such as the US, this also has the affect of criminals arming themselves as a direct result. This is not an arms race, and it is not sensible to escalate one in a civilised society. In the US this right to bear arms is instead a relic of the wild west when having a gun was necessary to protect your freedom in the absence of an effective police force. We have no such history and no such need of escalation here. I would much prefer a ‘nanny state’, who we elect freely to protect our freedom, and who occasionally have to balance the need for freedom against making difficult decisions to deal with the problems this sometimes causes.
The 1000s of gun deaths in the US every year, both through crime, policemen shooting suspects rather than questioning them, and through unfortunate domestic accidents, prove daily that this apparent solution has enormous and tragic side effects.
Some research may help us understand this in context:
“Homicide rates tend to be related to firearm ownership levels. Everything else being equal, a reduction in the percentage of households owning firearms should occasion a drop in the homicide rate” …. Evidence to the Cullen Inquiry 1996: Thomas Gabor, Professor of Criminology – University of Ottawa
Wikipedia reports that there were 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during 2000, quite apart from the fatalities caused by widespread gun availability.
In terms of gun ownership in the states .. “in 2004, 36.5% of Americans reported having a gun in their home and in 1997, 40% of Americans reported having a gun in their homes. At this time there were approximately 44 million gun owners in the United States” …”The number of American homes reporting have a gun in their homes is down from 46% as reported in 1989.” … This evidence suggests that many people in the US recognise that having a firearm at home is a liability rather than a protection of their own freedom, and gun ownership has consequently fallen as a result.
The final piece of evidence disproving this solution to our current difficulties, is the simple fact that, if this was really a better way for a society to operate then there would be no such problems in the USA. I believe evidence shows we in the UK live in a more peaceful country, even taking into account our recent troubles. I do not believe in following their model of a civilised society in this respect.
There is also a perception in some quarters that in our ‘nanny state’, CCTV is a threat to our freedom. On the contrary, CCTV is a better deterrent than arming our police force, as it does not result in unnecessary deaths due to misuse of the tool available. The evidence collected using it is not susceptible to witness intimidation, and it does not lose it’s accuracy over time, it simply shows the facts. It is nothing more than a completely impartial observer and I am glad we have as many cameras watching us as we do in our inner cities. Used properly they provide a really effective deterrent in a country where the police are not armed.
At present the evolving Internet is a wild west, where freedom is possible no matter what you want to achieve with it. Whether that be the sharing of child pornography, making of bombs, killing of innocent people or destroying of businesses for personal gain. Why do we not allow these activities in our civilised society? The answer is obvious. Is not what is being proposed simply an extension of this, and a possible solution which other counties may well need to consider in similar circumstances? Or are we going to pay a heavy price for our freedom of speech instead and have criminals take advantage of new technology freely, because we couldn’t possibly allow their freedom to be affected, no matter that they intend to cause harm with it? This would of course be madness, but it is the thrust of some rather I’ll informed arguments I have read in the last few days.
Is this action also justifiable in the context that we have something valuable to protect? .. the freedom of our citizens to open businesses, to employ local people, to pay taxes and better themselves through hard work without interference from criminals out for a quick buck?
Ultimately if the price of freedom of speech is to tolerate theft, burglary and violent crime, then I for one am not prepared to pay it, and if citizens of this country are found misusing technology for criminal means, then I support our right to remove it from them.