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Squelching social media after riots a dangerous idea

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Special to CNN
  • Rebecca MacKinnon: Britain's Cameron suggested controls on social media after riots
  • But he'd decried controls during Arab Spring, a Chinese commentary pointed out
  • She says squelching social media during unrest opens door to abuse of power
  • MacKinnon: Nations must suppress this impulse, show the internet is compatible with liberty

Editor's note: Rebecca MacKinnon is a Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, co-founder of the international bloggers' network Global Voices Online and a founding board member of the Global Network Initiative. Her book, "Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom" will be published in January by Basic Books

(CNN) -- In an emergency session of Parliament on Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the violence, looting and arson sweeping his country "were organized via social media." He said his government is now considering how and whether to "stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."

On Friday, China's state-run Xinhua news agency published a commentary contrasting Cameron's latest statements with his Arab Spring-inspired speech earlier this year, in which he loftily proclaimed that freedom of expression should be respected in Tahrir Square as much as in London's Trafalgar Square.

"We may wonder why Western leaders, on the one hand, tend to indiscriminately accuse other nations of monitoring, but on the other take for granted their steps to monitor and control the Internet," Xinhua said. "For the benefit of the general public, proper Web-monitoring is legitimate and necessary."

The Chinese government has been making similar arguments since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her first speech declaring Internet freedom to be a core pillar of American foreign policy in January 2010. For example, here is Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu responding to a foreign correspondent's question in May about heightened Internet censorship and surveillance: "The Chinese government's legal management of the Internet is in line with international practice."

While perpetrators of crime and violence, such as the kind we've witnessed this past week in Britain, must of course be pursued and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, it is critical that both the British government and Internet companies that operate in the U.K. or serve British users proceed responsibly.

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Any new legal measures, or cooperative arrangements between government and companies meant to keep people from organizing violence or criminal actions, must not be carried out in ways that erode due process, rule of law and the protection of innocent citizens' political and civil rights.

The potential for the abuse of power through digital networks -- upon which we the people now depend for nearly everything, including our politics -- is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. If government officials and companies with power over our digital lives act hastily to address urgent problem at hand without considering the long-term implications, they could do lasting damage to British democracy -- and to the freedoms and rights of Internet users everywhere.

Not only will they make it more difficult for human rights activists to fight back against Chinese censorship and surveillance practices, it will become even more difficult for activists in Egypt and Tunisia to fight the creeping efforts by members of both transitional governments to re-establish surveillance and censorship in the name of fighting violent extremism. This is the excuse that both countries' previous regimes always used with impunity. It will also become increasingly difficult for Internet and telecommunications companies operating around the world to resist censorship and surveillance requests from governments, particularly authoritarian regimes.

Since Cameron's remarks, some media commentators and bloggers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere have said the government's behavior recalls that of autocratic regimes that have tried to stifle online dissent and even cut off Internet services completely to shore up their power over the past year.

But while there is plenty to criticize about what Britain's democratically-elected government has or has not done over the past week, comparing Cameron's response to the riots and Mubarak's response to the Tahrir Square protests obscures key--and obvious--differences between the two situations and countries. It also deflects responsibility from the British public at large, as well as the Internet and telecommunications companies that serve them.

After all, Cameron is Prime Minister as the result of a recent election, not as the result of a military coup 30 years ago or backroom Politburo politics. He serves at the pleasure of a Parliament elected by the British people. The British public has the power and the ability to keep his government from eroding their rights, if they are sufficiently motivated to do so. If they are willing to trade their rights for greater security, however, the ugly reality is that the consequences will be felt far beyond Britain's borders. A similar reality applies to all democratic societies as we seek to balance our desire for security and the imperative of protecting civil liberties in the Internet age.

As the global economy continues to struggle, democracies face particularly challenging times. After last month's horrific massacre by a right-wing anti-immigrant extremist in Norway, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg declared that the only way to fight extremism is with more democracy and more humanity. Reactions elsewhere around Europe have been less encouraging.

Finnish police announced plans to boost Internet surveillance in hopes of catching similar madmen. Conservative politicians in Germany are using the attacks as an excuse to revive data retention laws that were declared unconstitutional last year. Officials in Estonia called for enhanced law enforcement powers to trace and identify Internet users.

In the United States, under two successive presidential administrations, laws have been passed and policies implemented that make it vastly easier for government agencies to track and access citizens' private digital communications than it is for authorities to search or carry out surveillance of our physical homes, offices, vehicles and mail.

Standards of oversight, due process and accountability have been eroded in ways that have made it easier for government agencies to abuse power, and have made it more difficult for citizens to hold the abusers accountable. In the name of fighting terror and crime, members of Congress continue to propose laws that would require companies to retain more data, and for longer periods.

Meanwhile, the global public discourse over how to solve our deep-seated and inter-connected social and economic problems relies increasingly on digital networks. In order to prevent social, economic and geopolitical meltdown, it is imperative that those who feel marginalized and oppressed have a chance to be heard alongside the elite and powerful.

Thus, my plea to the people of Britain and citizens of all other democracies is this: We owe it not only to our children, but to everybody everywhere who is struggling against tyrants and dictators, to prevent a global race to the bottom, politically as well as economically.

We must all rise to the challenge to demonstrate that security and prosperity in the Internet age are not only compatible with liberty, they ultimately depend on it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rebecca MacKinnon.