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London Riots: The Boundaries of Freedom of Expression

(photo: FOAMAR)

(update below)

Four nights of riots in the United Kingdom (the first three primarily in London) have given way to calls for the arrests of those who have used mobile technology or social networking to “incite violence.” Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh said some messages on Twitter related to the riots have been “really inflammatory” and “accurate” and that officers should consider arresting those who sent incitements to violence on Twitter.

Receiving attention for their perceived role in fueling the riots is Twitter and Research in Motion (RIM), the company behind the Blackberry Messengers (BBMs) youths have been using to send messages urging other to join in the riots.

Twitter has refused to cut off the tweets and shut down accounts of those believed to be involved in the riots. A Twitter spokesperson maintained the “tweets must continue to follow” and refers those seeking justification for the company’s position to a blog post by co-founder Biz Stone, which was posted in January of this year:

Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.

Twitter does have “responsibilities and limits.” There are “illegal Tweets and spam” that are removed but those exceptions are “narrow.”

Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed. While we may need to release information as required by law, we try to notify Twitter users before handing over their information whenever we can so they have a fair chance to fight the request if they so choose.

RIM has chosen to publicly cooperate with the government and help officials track down individuals, who have been involved in the violence:

We feel for those impacted by this weekend’s riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can. As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials. Similar to other technology providers in the UK we comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces.”

RIM and other companies may not have much choice when it comes to cooperating with authorities. The Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act grants government the power to require RIM to turn over message data to the police. When making the decision to compel a company to disclose the information, the authorities have to be able to make the case that they could not obtain the information they are seeking to obtain through other means. Upon obtaining the information, the company is not allowed to tell anyone it has been given a RIPA request by government. (Thus, this is why Twitter would say nothing if it had indeed begun to provide data to the UK government.)

A hackers group called TeaMp0isoN unsurprisingly does not like RIM’s decision to assist the police. They hacked into RIM’s BlackBerry Blogs website. They issued a response that clearly supports the riots, which isn’t a stance this author is going to take, however, they do express one concern this author shares: the concern that people are going to be swept up in mass arrests to save the authorities and government from embarrassment.

Whether individuals using technology to send messages with incitements to violence can actually be connected to acts that have been perpetrated on the streets of London seems to be a valid question.

A number of users have seized upon the use of BlackBerry Messengers (BBMs) by looters and concluded that BBMs are fast, free and private and those using them can operate on a “shadow social network” protected from “police snooping.” This perceived link between the violence may be as debatable as the notion that the Egypt and Tunisia uprisings were Twitter revolutions. Regardless of the technology, Egyptians and Tunisians would have, at some point, taken action. Technology merely enhanced their ability to challenge their governments. In the United Kingdom, everything indicates riots were bound to happen whether youths had BBMs or no BBMs. [*Needless to say, most Egyptians likely find the riots to be abhorrent.]

There is likely no way to conclude that someone’s incitements to violence sent with their BBM played no role in causing arsons, looting or vandalism unless the operator who sent the message is taken in for questioning and perhaps even put on trial.

In the United States, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeal recently ruled that a man’s call to shoot then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in the head, which was posted on a message board, was protected speech. The Court found the man had not posted a “true threat” and there was not sufficient evidence to demonstrate the person would actually do harm.

To relate this to the London rioters, it seems very likely that youths sent out messages without ever actually intending to commit arson, looting or vandalism. The messages would essentially be a political statement (albeit a militant one).

Should society protect that kind of speech or should speech that does not constitute a “true threat” in a society be banned and criminalized?

It’s very easy to pin the blame on those who sent out messages. And, clearly, the destruction of property, the stealing from businesses and the setting of stores on fire is illegal and criminal behavior. But, it is chaotic and instable moments like these when one has to pay close attention to law enforcement and government to make sure something isn’t done that citizens who value freedom and liberty will regret later.


The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) hits on this dilemma with this post on the UK riots revealing a “double standard” for social media. Media studies professor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Megan Boler, notes how social media helped protesters in the Arab world. Boler contends now that the “same methods are used in scenario like Britain, they are seen as disturbing.” She says in London “it’s not about a dictator.Here the issue is the corporation as a representative symbol. These things always spiral off into hitting the mom and pop stores, which is unfortunate.”

More importantly, Boler concludes the focus on the role of technology is a distraction from the deep-rooted issues that have pushed society into this moment of chaos.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."