< Is It Ever OK To Block Social Media?

Transcript

Friday, August 19, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Given social media's role in mobilizing against tyrants, especially in the Arab world, we are quick to call foul when an authoritarian regime blocks access. But what about when a democracy does it?

When rioters in the U.K., allegedly aided by BlackBerry Messenger, began looting early this month, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that the government should be able to turn off social media used to abet crime.

 

Recently in suburban Washington and Philadelphia, flash mobs have popped up and many blame social media for helping them coordinate crime. And just last week San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, cut off cell phone service in some stations to forestall communication among protesters. Suddenly BART was being compared to repressive Middle Eastern governments.

Obviously, trying to protect commuters is a world apart from trying to quash speech. But it still raises the question, at what point, if any, is it okay for authorities to control emerging channels of communication. Of course, BART doesn't shut down cell service every time it faces protests. It's only happened once, and, in fact, just this week there was another protest at a BART station and authorities did not disconnect cell phone service. BART Deputy Police Chief Daniel Hartwig says his department is learning to use social media.

DANIEL HARTWIG:

Our police department, as in many police departments, rely upon the same social media that these protesters utilize. And we recovered information based upon those sites that described their communication process.

BOB GARFIELD:

Obviously, there is maintaining the public safety and order and then there is suppressing political protest and freedom of speech. Can the police department be trusted to make the decision, when it is the former and not the latter?

DANIEL HARTWIG:

We never lead with suppression of social media, suppression of First Amendment rights, suppression in any manner.

Recently these demonstrations have moved from street level in a open public forum area where public demonstration and protest is accepted and encouraged. Once it moves down into the subway station, it is not a safe and a secure location to have a large number of people gather and attempt to obstruct public transportation.

We have to do everything within our power to ensure the safety and security at that specific location.

BOB GARFIELD:

At one point in this series of protests you shut down the service and then for a subsequent demonstration or planned demonstration you left service intact. Why?

DANIEL HARTWIG:

When the first shutdown of the social media occurred, there was specific information that we received that led us to believe that that was a key tool to their activities. I don't believe this Monday that was a part of the scenario.

BOB GARFIELD:

Your episode happened in the middle of violence in London, an apparent gang, flash mobs in Philadelphia, and so on. To what extent did the experience of law enforcement in those cities inform the decisions you made in San Francisco?

DANIEL HARTWIG:

I think when these ideas are vetted between different departments, not just the police department but other departments we rely upon, I am sure that those are taken into consideration.

That being said, what I'm focused on is what is evolving in front of me. I am not taking inventory on what else is occurring outside of the BART system and some other nation in some other city.

BOB GARFIELD:

Inevitably, when tyrants suppress political speech they do so under the pretext of protecting the, the citizens. And so, essentially the message that you're giving me is what the Mubareks of the world are saying to their people to rationalize the use of force.

It seems to me that in the debate about what BART did to protect its riders, people have invoked these very rationalizations. How do you process that?

DANIEL HARTWIG:

I've heard the comparisons about tyrants, about how they defend their actions. All rely upon our safety record. At this point in time we haven't had anybody hurt. We've had very few arrests. I don't know how to make it any clearer. Suppression of First Amendment rights, suppression of social media is not what we lead with.

Walk into the BART system when you're in the Bay area and part of the equipment that you'll see is social media, some form – iPhone, BlackBerry, whatever. When you remove it, for whatever reason, it’s not a comfortable feeling. We do not enter into this lightly. We've done it one time. Will we do it again? I don't know. Will remain in our toolbox? Yeah, I imagine yes, that it will.

BOB GARFIELD:

Daniel Hartwig is deputy chief of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department.

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at The Electronic Frontier Foundation. Julian, welcome back to On the Media.

JILLIAN YORK:

Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

So Chief Hartwig just explained to us why shutting down social media was a tactical decision for the purpose of protecting the riders. EFF takes a very different view. Why?

JILLIAN YORK:

I recognize that there are limits to free expression. Incitement of violence is a major one. However, I don't believe that we should exercise prior restraint on things like this. Preemptively striking on expression is the problem here.

BOB GARFIELD:

The reason we're having this conversation isn't only because of the BART incident. It happens that the BART episode occurred in the midst of a lot of other violent and disruptive activity in various places around the world, the – the riots in London.

Flash mobs formed in suburban Washington D.C. and suburban Philadelphia where, you know, a bunch of hoodlums got together using social media with the specific purpose of creating havoc, you know, clearing out a 7-Eleven of much of its merchandise, for example.

So clearly, the tools that social media provide are being abused.

JILLIAN YORK:

Yes. At the same time that social media can be a tool for good, it can also be tool for bad. While all of this is happening, while the riots were happening in the U.K. and the BART protest and the incident that you mentioned in Philadelphia, Syrians were using social media to upload videos of atrocities committed by their government.

In 2011 we've seen the absolute incredible power of social media to be a force for good. Now we’re seeing the flip side of that.

BOB GARFIELD:

The question is if people do, in fact, use social media to coalesce flash mobs or other violent activity, what is a benevolent government to do?

JILLIAN YORK:

A better solution to a lot of this is to monitor and pursue those who are actually committing a crime. Twitter’s a public forum, so all of these tweets are going out to the world, and the police can see them; I can see them.

Say the U.K. had shut down access to Twitter, and then where does that speech go? It probably pushes that private, and so then you have these private conversations happening to organize the same exact thing that was happening on Twitter.

And so, what we have there is a situation where it's harder for the police to get to it.

BOB GARFIELD:

I want to ask you about the rhetoric of the debate, the sort of casual comparisons of the actions of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police to Mubarek. Does it help when police trying to do their best are compared to tyrants?

JILLIAN YORK:

I do think that these are two different situations. But, at the same time, the actions of the BART police did very much reflect the actions of Mubarek earlier this year in shutting down this media.

And, and actually on Twitter we've seen a lot of Egyptians using the hash tag MuBARTek as a joke and offering their support to the protesters in San Francisco.

While these things did happen on very different scales, the intent was the same, to shut down speech in light of protests. We are looking at this as precedent, as a slippery slope. And I, I do fear that this is something we're going to be seeing a lot more often.

BOB GARFIELD:

Prime Minister David Cameron has talked about shutting off social media, clearly not to suppress political speech but to just stop rioters from looting.

JILLIAN YORK:

Well, no that’s true. I mean, I - as far as I can tell it is rioting and not a political speech.  But, at the same time, you know now China is saying oh well, you know, if - if the U.K. can do it, what's wrong with us doing it? The second a democratic society shuts down cell phone service, it's giving a pass to any other society that wants to do it.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right, Jillian, thank you very much.

JILLIAN YORK:

Thank you so much for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Jillian York is Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.