The riots in Britain has certainly been a story major media outlets around the world have been following closely, but recent comments by British Prime Minister David Cameron on the riots have certainly raised a few eyebrows recently. Some people are saying that the comments insinuate that the Prime Minister wants to, in essence, censor the internet in the event of civil unrest.
Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes
Since trying to figure out what David Cameron is saying is in dispute, we have decided to post a video of what David Cameron said, in full, with regards to the riots:
The relevant portion is 6:40 – 7:03. In the event the video is taken down, we also decided to offer this transcription of what Cameron said:
“Mr. Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck- will be struck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services, and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people from communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
The question is how would this be carried out? Would the government try and block certain individuals from accessing social media or would this be suggesting that the government intends to block out social media altogether? If that is uncertain, which possibility would be feasible?
If the government intends to block specific individuals instead, that would mean that everyone on different web services would have to be monitored. For that, there would essentially be a need for a massive amount of man power to monitor every communication on a given network. If it can be broken down to one person monitoring ten people’s communication, the number of people needed for such a task would be completely unfeasible just on wages, working space and training alone. The next logical step, in that case, would be to somehow automate the process. The only logical method to do so, that I can see, is have a system that monitors certain keywords. Such a method would be easily circumvented. For example, if the keyword being looked for is “riot”, then all people would have to do is use the word “ri0t” instead and a simple word search would not be able to find it. If there’s some Boolean involved where the word is “ri*t” (where the “*” can be anything) then the word can be changed again to “rio7”. If multiple variations are in place, then one can simply use services like upsidedowntext.com and use “Ê‡oÄ±É¹”. What’s more, messages can be further encoded by other means including Morse Code where “riot” would become “.-. .. — -“. There’s really hundreds of ways to send a message in text to another party in the first place that don’t include any of these ideas. No automated process would ever be bullet proof.
The only other way is to track down individuals spreading such messages via other means. Really, if the government or industry interests has enough information on someone to censor them on the internet via alternate means, they might as well bust down his or her door and pick them up instead of wasting their time trying to keep them off of social networking sites in the first place. In any event, this possibility just doesn’t seem one bit feasible. Forget whether it’s right or wrong, I’m not convinced that it’s even possible in the first place.
That really leaves the other option, an option that Thinq is concerned about, blocking out social networking entirely during times of civil unrest. Some people say that Cameron didn’t directly say that he wants to censor social networking entirely, but given what he did say and how implausible the other possibility is in the first, it’s not a fear without merit in my view.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Cameron did mean to say that he wants social networks censored during times of civil unrest. So Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry instant messaging is switched off. Then what? Well, people can simply use private IRC channels as an alternative. What if all IRC servers where somehow successfully switched off? Then people can use serverless chatrooms instead. What if the protocol is blocked at the ISP level in that case? Then the data stream can be encrypted. I’m sorry, but I don’t see it working. The only way it would work is if the entire internet was shut down completely. No service for anyone period. That could reduce things down to a localized level at worst given the possibility of creating home-brew radio services among other possibilities. Ultimately, a solution like killing off all internet access in the country would really cause more problems then it would solve – both politically and legally. So even that, while more feasible then censoring individuals, is not all that feasible either.
Since this is a political statement, I can honestly say that the most that can come from this at this time is simply the prime minister trying to portray an image of control over the situation. His comments with regards to social media, I think, can be taken as little more than hot air because it doesn’t sound like he is able to wield power. In practice, it’s very doubtful he would have that much power.