In the media and in public policy debates fingers were quick to point at the use of social media and mobile phones in spurring on the riots that overwhelmed several English cities last week and in helping looters evade the police.
On Thursday 11 August, Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement condemning social networking sites, claiming that the riots were "organised via social media".
He went on to say that his government is considering a crackdown on online communications: "We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."
Such a heavy-handed approach would set a dangerous precedent by violating rights to freedom of association and expression.
The same websites and phone networks were also used other Londoners to locate loved ones and friends, plan safe exits from trouble-spots and warn each other to stay away from dangerous areas.
“The Prime Minister's suggestions are reactive and poorly-thought-out. They seem to be mainly designed to distract from the social and political conditions initially provoking the disorder - including youth service and Educational Maintenance Allowance cuts, class divisions and deaths in custody and at police hands,” says Cedric Knight of GreenNet, Association for Progressive Communications (APC) member in the United Kingdom (UK).
As to turning off the mobiles of those who Cameron and co. 'know' are inciting violence, what evidence will be used to determine this? Would this apply to suspects, persons charged with offences, or those convicted? And who would decide and on what grounds that a person is 'known' to incite violence? How would this apply, for example, to citizen groups calling on communities to join them in protecting their homes or commercial property by physical means?
APC and GreenNet strongly condemn the violent acts committed by looters and rioters but we also call for a measured and thorough investigation into the causes of the riots and the use of social media and mobile phone networks.
We urge that no new regulatory interventions be imposed until this investigation is finished, and that any proposals comply with and uphold the human rights of UK citizens. Access to communications is a basic right and there should be no 'prior restraint'. British laws already include powers against incitement.
In June 2011 at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the UK government told other governments that internet-related rights and freedom limitations on human rights (which includes internet shutdowns and blocking websites) should not be taken lightly. The UK government stated that it would only consider such drastic censorship “if convinced it is appropriate, proportionate and in accordance with international legal obligations and is effective on the basis of evidence”.
Government officials must not let the intensity of the moment drive them to make hasty decisions which could have long-term consequences for communications rights in the UK. APC and GreenNet call on the British government to stand by their statement to the UNHRC in June.
For more information contact
APC Internet Rights are Human Rights Campaign
Tel: +64 21 263 2753
Tel: +44 20 7065 0935
About Association for Progressive Communications:
The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is an international network and non-profit organisation founded in 1990 that wants everyone to have access to a free and open internet to improve lives and create a more just world.
GreenNet is a UK organisation that has been promoting use of electronic networks for peace and civil society since 1986.
For more about Association for Progressive Communications, refer to www.apc.org.
For more about GreenNet, refer to www.gn.apc.org.
To view other NGO press releases, refer to www.ngopulse.org/group/home-page/pressreleases.