The British government flirted with the idea of restricting the public’s access to the internet and social media in the wake of the riots that shook the nation. British officials met with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry on Thursday to discuss voluntary ways to limit social media access in the interest of preventing crime and civil and unrest.
Theresa May, the government’s home minister said the purpose of the meetings were not to “discuss restricting Internet services,” but to “crack down on the networks being used for criminal behavior.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the government was exploring its options. “We’re going to look at whether or not it might be right to do this.” He assured the BBC “We are not going to become like Iran or China. We are not going to suddenly start cutting people off.”
Iran, criticized by the West for impeding internet access and limiting free speech, seemed to relish Britain’s identity crisis. The Tehranbased semi-unofficial Fars News Agency offered to “send a human rights delegation to Britain to study human rights violations in the country.”
“You do not want to be on a list with the countries that have cracked down on social media during the Arab Spring,” said Jo Glanville, the editor of Index on Censorship a magazine that promotes freedom of expression, stating that such actions could “undermine democracy.”
A Facebook spokesperson said: "We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on internet services." The company stressed the positive role Facebook played during the riots, such as keeping people in contact and organizing cleanup events. "There is no place for illegal activity on Facebook and we take firm action against those who breach our rules," said the spokesperson.
Social media has also played an instrumental role in the Arab spring. It is the only bastion of free speech an emerging class of intelligent young people has access to and its message of free speech and liberty is the only narrative the Middle East has seen that is more powerful than that of Jihad against the West. Western governments should be encouraging a universal acceptance of social media and free communication, not attempting to limit it.
Google accused the Chinese government of disrupting its Gmail service in March. The NY Times reported cell phone calls that mentioned the word protest more than once were immediately disconnected. Hosni Mubarak attempted to shut down the internet during the revolution. If liberal western governments threaten to block internet access or dole out harsh sentences to young men for creating Facebook events it will set a disturbing example for the emerging world about the government’s power over free speech.