Peter Kafka

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After Riots, U.K. Prime Minister Floats Social Media Crackdown

It appears as if the “technology made the London riots worse” theory has a high-profile backer: U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

In a speech to Parliament today, Cameron appeared to endorse the idea that posts on Facebook and Twitter, and communication via BlackBerry Messenger, helped fuel the violence that crippled his country for several days. And he floated the notion of a government-sanctioned crackdown.

From his prepared remarks:

Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media.

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

And here, wags will point out that British cops are also using social media, because they posted photos of looters on a Flickr page — here’s one the cops say was taken from a looter’s own Twitter post — and isn’t that a double standard, blah blah blah. Don’t waste your energy debating that one.

If a crackdown moves forward, though, it will put services like Facebook and Twitter in a tricky position: The services’ standard line is that they’ll comply with requests from cops and courts in whatever country they operate in when it comes to subpoenas and the like. But actually censoring communication is a different matter. BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has already said it would work with cops trying to trace text messages sent using its service.

Also worth bearing in mind: Freedom of speech is already much more limited in the U.K. than in the U.S.; recall the farcical but somewhat effective effort to prevent U.K. newspapers and Web sites from printing soccer star Ryan Giggs’ name this spring.

UPDATE: Here’s a response from Twitter spokeswoman Rachel Bremer: “Our only comment is that if the government would like to talk about this we’d be happy to listen.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work