In a parliamentary address today on the riots in England this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement that caught a lot of people's attention on Twitter: "When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them." He was discussing the role Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Messenger have played in allowing rioters to coordinate looting (in fact, several have been arrested of using these technologies to incite violence). "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," Cameron added. "Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill."
Cameron's proposed interference in social media in the name of security provoked instant reaction online. The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders called the suggestion "draconian," Vanity Fair contributor Emma Gilbey Keller deemed it "ominous," and online activist Jim Killock labeled it a potential attack on free speech. Others wondered how authorities would even go about detecting impending violence online. Twitter users in the Middle East, where regimes are cracking down on Internet use to quash uprisings, were also unhappy. Cameron "will now be the most cited reference by all despots clamping down on social media," wrote one Syrian activist. "If the UK limits social media to contain the riots, then we are witnessing a spectacularly revealing moment for First World regimes," added Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem. Others smelled hypocrisy. "Remember folks, it's okay if the West does it," tweeted Middle East commentator Sultan Al Qassemi. Pakistan-based journalist Omar Waraich noted that Cameron had praised social media as a "powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression" during a speech in Kuwait in February.