The pundits have only just begun to offer their weighty thoughts on the subject, but already one of the key threads to emerge in discussions around the riots in England and Wales has been technology – specifically, social networks.
That was also reflected in David Cameron's official reaction yesterday, when he spoke of banning people from networks like Twitter and using Blackberries if they were suspected of plotting criminal activity. Some were calling for a complete shutdown of those networks. Here, for example, is Conservative MP Louise Mensch on Twitter:
Common sense. If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. World won't implode.
Happily, the Home Office seems to have confirmed that this is not on the cards, but the damage has been done. Here's a post from the Chinese News Agency Xinhua that is positively dripping with Schadenfreude:
Apparently the rioters used social media, like Twitter, Facebook and the Blackberry messenger system and Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday he's looking at banning potential troublemakers from using the online services.
The British government, once an ardent advocate of absolute Internet freedom, has thus made a U-turn over its stance towards web-monitoring.
Communications tools such as Facebook and cellphones also played a delicate role in the massive social upheaval earlier this year in north Africa and neighboring west Asian countries, whose governments then imposed targeted censorship over message flows on the Internet.
In a speech delivered in Kuwait in February, the British prime minister, however, argued that freedom of expression should be respected "in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square."
Learning a hard lesson from bitter experience, the British government eventually recognized that a balance needs to be struck between freedom and the monitoring of social media tools.
The thing is, of course, the writer is absolutely correct. This is sheer hypocrisy on the UK government's part, and completely undermines its ability to criticise any other country – like China – for blocking access to the Internet or instituting online censorship.
And this doesn't just apply to the UK, although the double standards are more stark here because of recent events. Most of the leading Western countries are openly talking about blocking Web sites without any apparent embarrassment or shame. In these cases, the Web blocks are not because people are seeking to read subversive material that threatens the government, but to stop people who might dare to access infringing copyright materials.
This makes the moves even more reprehensible, for at least the Chinese can claim that they are instituting censorship in order to preserve public order (just like David Cameron now wishes to do, albeit on a more limited scale.) These Western governments, though, are willing to throw away two centuries of hard-won civil liberties simply to shore up the outdated business models of copyright industries with powerful lobbying machines.
Alongside its continuing economic and political decline, the moral shut-down of the West is now there for all to see – and mock.