David Cameron, Meet Hu Jintao
In my article in the current issue (subscribe!) about this spring's abortive "Jasmine Protests" in China, I mention how hard the Chinese authorities cracked down on social media, as a way of thwarting protests before they happened and of apprehending would-be organizers. In certain parts of Beijing and other cities, text-message transmission -- a main means of Chinese communication -- was blocked altogether. The "real" versions of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are banned, and the Chinese counterparts were heavily interfered-with.
Obviously constraints on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and similar social media were hallmarks of autocratic response during the "Arab Spring" protests as well.
Let's stipulate that violence and looting are different from non-violent protest, and much more deserving of being stopped; that the United Kingdom, despite being more thickly covered with surveillance cameras than China, is overall a vastly freer society; and that unlike the United States, with its First Amendment, the United Kingdom has never had an absolutist commitment to freedom of speech.
Still, this was an obtuse -- and harmful -- thing to say. Obtuse because of the failure to pay homage to the liberty-vs-security tradeoff that is central to the social bargain of all free societies. (Compare the Norwegian Prime Minister's response after the horrific killings there.) Harmful, because for years to come any authoritarian government that blocks people's ability to communicate -- in Syria, Libya, Burma, China, wherever -- will have an obvious retort to any Western critique. This is just what the Brits did when things got tense, they can say. If it's good enough for the UK and the Mother of Parliaments, how can it be wrong for us? It's all nice to talk about liberty and privacy when things are going smoothly, they will conclude; but your governments, too, are ruthless when they feel threatened. We're really all the same. (For similar reasons, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and U.S. acceptance of torture and suspension of civil liberties over the past decade badly undercut America's ability to stand in judgment of abuses elsewhere.)
I can barely imagine the pressure on people of all sorts in England, but this was not a grace-under-pressure response.