Part of the fallout of the recent riots is the usual blame for the internet for making it happen. According to the politicians and the media, the internet is the source of all ills. Like any human endeavour it reflects the best and worst of us. Research by the Guardian shows that the majority of tweets about the riots were reacting to it, rather than encouraging/arranging it. Boyd Neil has blogged about the political aspects of this and the potential implications of censorship, so I’m not going to cover that. What I’m interested in is the practical implications of restricting social media in these circumstances.
If you speak to any emergency planner or police officer responsible for ensuring public safety they’ll tell you that getting timely, accurate information to people is one of the hardest aspects of responding to any major incident. This is considered so important that there is a National Steering Committee for Warning and Informing the Public to share best practice and improve the resilience of communications in an emergency. A number of police forces across the UK successfully used Twitter to communicate the reality of the situation during the disturbances. Their tweets refuted rumours and promoted calm. For a lot of agencies, this was their first ‘real’ use of Twitter in a live event and seemed to be fairly successful. Taking this communications channel away would be a serious retrograde step.
There are also practical issues with ‘switching off’ Twitter and the like.
Would the URL be blocked from the UK? Would this stop third party apps from accessing it? What about the impact on non-UK users?
If the services are left intact but the means of accessing them are suspended then there are serious implications. You’d have to shut down the dial-up and broadband access in an affected area as well as stopping mobile phone data traffic. The knock-on effect from this is huge. Legitimate businesses would suffer losses, warning and informing information wouldn’t get out to the public, some communications between responders would be affected, and lives may be at risk. The increasing use of satellite broadband would also be an issue too.
If the whole mobile network has to be shut, rather than just the data service then the situation that arose on July 7th 2005 would be duplicated. Due to the invocation of Access Overload Control (ACCOLC) around Aldgate, the majority of phones carried by responders on scene were unable to access the network. Paragraph 3.10 onwards in the London Assembly Report explains this in more depth. ACCOLC has now been replaced by the Mobile Telephony Preference Access Service (MTPAS) but the number of handsets that can be registered per organisation is limited.
There’s also the possibility of jamming equipment similar to that used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent remote detonation of IEDs being used. This can be a bit ‘clumsy’ and restrict legitimate communications working due to the wide frequency bands it covers.
After the car bomb in Oslo, people were using Twitter to offer shelter and support to those affected by the bombing and encouraging everyone to make their wifi freely available so people could get in touch with their families. Post riots, community clean-up events were organised by Twitter. If suspended, this community resilience and support would be lost.
To me, it seems that closing down these networks would create more practical and operational problems than it would solve. Truly dedicated criminal groups would use other mediums (PMR radio for example) to co-ordinate things if they do do that sort of thing. The individuals who’ve been prosecuted for ‘incitement’ on Facebook seem to be at worst misguided rather than earnest rabble rousing criminals and don’t reflect the vast majority of users of social networking. There is also the risk that the suspension of a communication channel would increase the fear of people affected as their access to ‘live’ information would be severely reduced.