Social-networking to blame for social unrest?

We see this morning a post about British Prime Minister Cameron’s assertion yesterday during a Parliament presentation that, “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.” Sort of hearkens back to the sentiment behind Mubarak’s recent ills in Egypt, and steps taken there to stop protests: shutting off the internet.

While Egypt’s response was extreme, I saw a presentation by a student studying in Egypt across the river from the main protest site, where he’d taken copious pictures throughout the event. Many of the pictures showed hastily emblazoned references all over buildings there to a prime communication tool, Facebook. He claimed the service was central in organizing and carrying out the protests. Seems Mr. Cameron is now concerned about the same thing, albeit targeting specific services, not the entire internet.

The Prime Minister has said that the government is working with authorities, “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.” To that end, he has summoned Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry manufacturer RIM to a meeting to discuss their roles in the recent outbreaks there.

Here in the U.S., there has been talk for some time of a concept called the “Killswitch Bill”, which would allow government control over wholesale internet connectivity during attacks/emergencies deemed severe enough to justify the shutdown. Immediately this sparked criticism by civil rights organizations who feel there is too much latitude for abuses by overzealous government entities, potentially stifling civil, if vociferous, discourse. Mr. Cameron’s contention is that when violence erupts, something should be done to stop it. Shutting down the internet may still be an extreme case, but should governments have the latitude to have a “Killswitch Bill” for social media if they deem similar emergencies are occurring? Or, if they seek more granular restraint, how will the determination be made of who gets “shut off?” And then there’s the technology, exactly how will this be implemented, and how long will the action take during an emergency?

Increasingly, we see technology front-and-center on issues which have historically been reserved for street protests, direct action, physical retaliation, and a myriad of other societal manifestations. We also expect lawmakers to try to come to grips with the role of law relative to these new methods, and how that might be implemented.

Author Cameron Camp, ESET

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