Did the youthful rioters who roamed the streets of London, Manchester and other British cities expect to see their photos scrutinized by angry Internet users, keen to identify the miscreants? In the immediate aftermath of the riots, many cyber-vigilantes turned to Facebook, Flickr and other social networking sites to study pictures of the violence. Some computer-savvy members even volunteered to automate the process by using software to compare rioters' faces with faces pictured elsewhere on the Internet.
The rioting youths were not exactly Luddites either. They used BlackBerrys to send their messages, avoiding more visible platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It's telling that they looted many stores selling fancy electronics. The path is short, it would seem, from "digital natives" to "digital restives."
As social media's role in the London riots is explored, British politicians are considering whether temporarily banning or censoring sites like Twitter and Facebook would quell or enflame the tensions, Cassell Bryan-Low reports from London.
Technology has empowered all sides in this skirmish: the rioters, the vigilantes, the government and even the ordinary citizens eager to help. But it has empowered all of them to different degrees. As the British police, armed with the latest facial-recognition technology, go through the footage captured by their numerous closed-circuit TV cameras and study chat transcripts and geolocation data, they are likely to identify many of the culprits.
Such regimes are eager to see what kind of precedents will be set by Western officials as they wrestle with these evolving technologiesAuthoritarian states are monitoring these developments closely. Chinese state media, for one, blamed the riots on a lack of Chinese-style controls over social media. Such regimes are eager to see what kind of precedents will be set by Western officials as they wrestle with these evolving technologies. They hope for at least partial vindication of their own repressive policies.
Some British politicians quickly called on the BlackBerry maker Research in Motion to suspend its messaging service to avoid an escalation of the riots. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the government should consider blocking access to social media for people who plot violence or disorder.
After the recent massacre in Norway, many European politicians voiced their concern that anonymous anti-immigrant comments on the Web were inciting extremism. They are now debating ways to limit online anonymity.
Does the Internet really need an overhaul of norms, laws and technologies that gives more control to governments? When the Egyptian secret police can purchase Western technology that allows them to eavesdrop on the Skype calls of dissidents, it seems unlikely that American and European intelligence agencies have no means of listening the calls of, say, a loner in Norway.
We tolerate such drastic proposals only because acts of terror briefly deprive us of the ability to think straight. We are also distracted by the universal tendency to imagine technology as a liberating force; it keeps us from noticing that governments already have more power than is healthy.
The domestic challenges posed by the Internet demand a measured, cautious response in the West. Leaders in Beijing, Tehran and elsewhere are awaiting our wrong-headed moves, which would allow them to claim an international license for dealing with their own protests. The yare also looking for tools and strategies that might improve their own digital surveillance.
After violent riots in 2009, Chinese officials had no qualms about cutting off the Xinjiang region's Internet access for 10 months. Still, they would surely welcome a formal excuse for such drastic measures if the West should decide to take similar measures in dealing with disorder. Likewise, any plan in the U.S. or Europe to engage in online behavioral profiling—trying to identify future terrorists based on their tweets, gaming habits or social networking activity—is likely to boost the already booming data-mining industry. It would not take long for such tools to find their way to repressive states.
But something even more important is at stake here. To the rest of the world, the efforts of Western nations, and especially the U.S., to promote democracy abroad have often smacked of hypocrisy. How could the West lecture others while struggling to cope with its own internal social contradictions? Other countries could live with this hypocrisy as long as the West held firm in promoting its ideals abroad. But this double game is harder to maintain in the Internet era.
In their concern to stop not just mob violence but commercial crimes like piracy and file-sharing, Western politicians have proposed new tools for examining Web traffic and changes in the basic architecture of the Internet to simplify surveillance. What they fail to see is that such measures can also affect the fate of dissidents in places like China and Iran. Likewise, how European politicians handle online anonymity will influence the policies of sites like Facebook, which, in turn, will affect the political behavior of those who use social media in the Middle East.
Should America and Europe abandon any pretense of even wanting to promote democracy abroad? Or should they try to figure out how to increase the resilience of their political institutions in the face of the Internet? As much as our leaders might congratulate themselves for embracing the revolutionary potential of these new technologies, they have shown little evidence of being able to think about them in a nuanced and principled way.