Should social media be regulated and controlled? Should hardware and network providers be forced to open a one-way window for authorities to monitor the flow of conversation? These questions are once again being asked, as supposedly “civilized” societies erupt into violence, riots, vandalism, and hooliganism. (Vancouver Canada and London England both come come to mind.)
In these cases, rioters changed the marketing concept of a flash-mob – a seemingly spontaneous song and dance event – into a crash mob – something more sinister. Social media was used by the rioters to pinpoint where and when a new area was to be targeted – and sadly, people responded.
Beyond the argument for public order, proponents of regulation point out that governments already scan all phone and email conversations for issues of public safety and security. And in the private sector, emails are routinely scanned as well. Scanning encrypted messages sent from a Blackberry is merely putting this platform at parity with the others.
Notwithstanding these points, there are a number of arguments that suggest regulation and control are inappropriate, and ultimately unnecessary:
- Social Media for the good argument: The Arab Spring took root through social media, and was so effective at organizing the grassroots that the despotic governments shut it down. Providing a back door that governments can monitor, takes away a primary way for ordinary citizens to assert their right to free speech. Social media empowers for good as well as for bad, but it doesn’t do anything unless a person actually uses it. Sadly, the gun lobby’s argument rings true here as well: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. It’s how a tool is used that determines if it is good or bad.
- Essential freedoms argument: Most jurisdictions recognize people’s rights of free speech and privacy. By regulating this one channel of communication, we begin a slippery slope to a society that doesn’t value – or protect – any freedoms.
- Accountability argument: People should be held accountable for their specific actions using evidence that is lawfully obtained, without trampling the rights of the majority. In London there are 1000′s of video cameras that can be used to identify suspects. By questioning the suspects and examining their smart phones, police can work backwards to identify the organizers.
- Crowd-sourced justice argument: At the same time that the bad guys were using their BlackBerry’s to organize, many bystanders were using their Smartphones to post pictures and videos online. In the UK, the London police force have set up a web site of pictures and videos (www.met.police.uk/disordersuspects), asking the public for help. And on Facebook, Vancouver citizens “outed” rioters as well (www.Facebook.com/vancouverriot2011photos). More than anything else, these countervailing activities will reduce – or eliminate – the effectiveness of using social media for bad. No longer is it possible to hide when Google, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube see all. (As an aside, the issue of trial-by-crowd vs trial-by-court is a big one: what happens if the wrong person is “identified” as a perpetrator from a grainy Facebook photo? The traditional justice system may catch this, but trial-by-crowd can forever destroy a reputation.)
I am not advocating the use of Social Media for unlawful activity, and believe fundamentally that anyone who breaks the law should be prosecuted to the full extent of that law. And those who use questionable business practices should be exposed and suffer commercial loss. But restricting – and losing – freedom of expression exclusively in one communication channel is inappropriate, and because of crowd-sourced justice, unnecessary.
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