According to a March 2011 report titled Internet Enemies by Reporters Without Borders, one in three Internet users on the planet does not have access to free Internet. The report estimates that around 60 countries implement some form of Internet censorship or “netizen harassment”.
Ever since the overthrow of the Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak governments in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, the issue of state control of Internet and Internet services has never faded away from the public. Most recently David Cameron told the House of Commons that social networks like Twitter and Facebook “can be used for ill”. This came in the wake of the four-day spree of rioting and looting that surged through the UK last week.
Social networks and social messaging services seem to have taken many states unawares. Both in the ease with which they have become ubiquitous, and the speed with which these platforms propagate information.
For decades, most broadcasting platforms and technologies —such as television and radio —have been under the direct or indirect purview of state legislation. So while citizens were free to communicate with each other through a variety of one-to-one modes such as telephone or telegram, all one-to-many and many-to-many channels were usually regulated or at least supervised. Controlling broadcasters usually meant rattling sabres at newspaper editors, television anchors or radio presenters. But this was easy. There were only so many broadcasters. Twitter and Facebook have obliterated this status quo. News is being broken not by the nearest OB (outside broadcast) van, but by the nearest mobile phone.
States such as India and leaders such as Cameron are left in a quandary. These networks, make no mistake, can turn rogue. They can cause damage. They can spread panic and reinforce rumour. They can be used for ill. Some amount of surveillance, constitutionally overseen, is perhaps warranted.
But not so that filters can be put in place or shutdowns can be initiated. Isolating or misinforming people is not a law-and-order strategy. On the other hand, states should use the same technologies to quell rumours and restore calm.
The question then is, what if citizens trust Twitter and Facebook more than their governments? In that case, the fingers may be pointed anywhere, but not at the Internet.
Are new technologies wrongly blamed for disorder? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org