David Cameron appears to have had a change of heart on the subject of Internet freedom.
"Our interests lie in upholding our values – in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the Internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law," the British Prime Minister said in a speech before the Kuwait National Assembly in February, referring to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. "But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square."
Now, with riots spreading throughout London and other British cities, the Prime Minister has raised the possibility of restricting access to the same digital tools he once deemed a vital right.
Mr. Cameron told Parliament the government is investigating whether it would be "right and possible" to ban people from using social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and the popular messaging service BlackBerry Messenger on Research In Motion's smartphones, because rioters have been using them to communicate.
"Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," he said. "And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them."
Any attempt to place a ban on the use of social media would be fraught with difficulty. Not only would such a move be challenged as an infringement of the right to freedom of speech that Mr. Cameron so recently lauded, it would entail costly and complex work by telecom carriers and Internet Service Providers. What's more, there's no guarantee it would work, given the myriad ways activists have found to get around such roadblocks. But at a time of crisis that threatens to undermine the Prime Minister's leadership, it appears no strategy is off the table.
Mr. Cameron's statement drew swift criticism from civil libertarians, who compared it to attempts by authoritarian regimes to stifle dissent. The London-based Open Rights Group said it had "broad concerns" with attempts to create new laws to regulate social media.
"New measures to remove Web freedoms of any sort will quickly be seized upon by oppressive governments to justify their own actions," said Jim Killock, the group's executive director. "The U.K. should not be using the same methods as governments in China, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia."
Perhaps the most extreme example of a ban on Internet communication came in Egypt during the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. At the direction of the state, Egypt's ISPs shut off all access to the Web, wiping the country off the digital map. In Iran, authorities were especially concerned by the use of Twitter during the 2009 election protests, when the micro-blogging site became such a pivotal tool for protesters that the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to hold off on maintenance downtime so information in and out of Iran would keep flowing.
Whether Mr. Cameron's idea will become government policy remains to be seen. But in the view of one expert, there is no guarantee that a ban on social media would do anything to stem the violence.
"There's no necessary connection between the use of social media and the extent of the rioting," said Vince Mosco, a sociology professor at Queen's University in Kingston and an authority on political communication. "And there's no guarantee that those carrying out these riots won't use other means to circumvent a government crackdown on the networks."
The British government would also have to consider the unintended consequences of a ban. The BlackBerry, for example, is the tool of choice for much of London's financial community, whose members rely on BlackBerry Messenger.
BlackBerry Messenger has proven a hit with British rioters as well, its popularity attributed to the fact that it is encrypted. In reality, snooping on messages sent from consumer BlackBerrys is relatively easy for security agencies. BBM's popularity, especially among younger users, has more to do with the fact that it is essentially a free form of text-messaging.
RIM is no stranger to government interference. Last year, a number of countries in the Middle East and Asia threatened to ban certain BlackBerry services unless the Canadian firm gave their security agencies greater access to encrypted communications. RIM insists that it does not provide different levels of access to different countries, and provides assistance only within the limits of local lawful access laws. Twitter has regularly refused to take down content posted using the service. Facebook removes content that is deemed violent or that could qualify as hate speech.
Ultimately, Prof. Mosco said, the British government is unlikely to go ahead with a social media ban unless the situation in London becomes significantly worse. But even by floating the idea, Mr. Cameron may have already set an unwelcome precedent.
"For the government to talk about this sends a message to people who rely on these networks that their reliance is threatened," Prof. Mosco said. "Something bad has already happened."