After four nights of riots, Prime Minister David Cameron is considering whatever steps are necessary to bring peace and calm to the streets of England, including banning certain people from using social media:
"Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," said Cameron.
"And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So 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.
Shutting down social media, of course, was a favorite tactic of Middle Eastern despots throughout the Arab Spring — one which was routinely condemned by the Western world — so the move might invite some unfriendly parallels. We're sure some particularly hyperbolic observers will even say this makes Cameron no better than Hosni Mubarak. But these parallels only go so deep.
The most salient difference is that these are rioters, not peaceful protesters. They aren't marching in the streets to air legitimate grievances about their government — in fact, their main grievance seems to be that the government is bothering them while they're trying to pillage and loot things that they normally have to pay for. This would also not be a blanket shutdown of social media like those seen in the Middle East. If we take Cameron at his word, the proposed censorship measures would be targeted only at those who are using social media to incite violence, which is already illegal.
Of course, much depends on the specifics of how this plan would be carried out. As one civil liberties advocate observed to the Guardian:
"How do people 'know' when someone is planning to riot? Who makes that judgment? The only realistic answer is the courts must judge. If court procedures are not used, then we will quickly see abuses by private companies and police. Companies like RIM must insist on court processes.
"Citizens also have the right to secure communications. Business, politics and free speech relies on security and privacy. David Cameron must be careful not to attack these fundamental needs because of concerns about the actions of a small minority."
Patience is wearing thin in Britain right now, but hopefully Cameron gives careful consideration to striking the right balance between security and civil liberties. If he does, that would be another big difference between him and Mubarak.