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Request for social media curbs in Britain spark debate

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Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011

British Prime Minister David Cameron touched off an international debate over freedom of speech when he told Parliament that the government should be able to step in when social media are used for social disruption.

Rioters in London used such media on mobile phones to organize and evade police this week, just as anti-government activists in the Arab world used web-enabled devices to coordinate mass demonstrations this spring. Stateside, a California transit agency on Thursday thwarted protesters by blocking cell phone service in its subway tunnels.

"Cracking down on an entire outlet of speech to suppress dissent is contrary to basic principles of human rights and individual freedom," said Ryan Radia, associate director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

In the United States, First Amendment protections, refined by a large body of case law, limit what the government can do to suppress speech, even when it's inciting illegal behavior, Radia said. "We tolerate the downside of freedom, which is that free speech can be used for good or bad."

But the rise of social media and the ubiquity of cell phones have opened something of a loophole, Radia said. The government cannot legally shut down mobile access to the Internet, but it can ask cell phone companies to do it for them. And private cellular companies can shut down their towers without running afoul of the Constitution, he said.

"The question is whether a request from government should be presumed to be coercive in nature," Radia said.

Cameron suggested the British government should be able to go a step further and actually prevent access. But that's not so simple.

Egypt clamped down on communication between protesters by trying to shut off all Internet service in the country with mixed success. That illustrated how difficult it is to silence online communication, even where the government is allowed to do so, said Jeff Bigham, computer science professor at the University of Rochester.

"It's pretty hard to isolate a particular geographic area and block access to a particular site," Bigham said. That would involve cooperation from all Internet service providers serving an area.

In major cities, that can be hundreds of companies managing land lines, cable, satellite and cellular access. "It seems unlikely there's a very easy way to do this," he said

Unless it's in a tunnel.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit District in the San Francisco area cut cell service in its subway system for three hours on Thursday to disrupt a planned protest of a transit police officer's fatal shooting of a homeless man. Transit police learned the protesters planned to disrupt train service and use text messages to avoid police, so they shut down the antennas that enable communication inside their subway system.

The trains and train platforms are not considered public areas, so the laws are different, said transit police Deputy Chief Benson Fairow. He was the incident commander for the protest response, and said it was the first time cell service had been turned off in the tunnels. The object was to keep people safe on crowded platforms and near electrified tracks, not to silence speech, he said.

"We support freedom of speech and First Amendment rights, but there's a limit to that. It shouldn't interfere with someone's safe passage," Fairow said.

Britain's Home Office said it planned to hold talks with police chiefs and representatives of Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion Ltd. Rioters used BlackBerry's messaging service to coordinate their activities, Cameron's office said.

Authorities are considering "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 said.

That could put more people in danger, Bigham said. Most media reports focus on "those who would use social media for bad things," he said.

"This is also how a lot of people in London are finding out what areas they should be avoiding because they're not safe right now," Bigham said. "We're still adjusting to what it means to live in a world that has social media, where information can be so rapidly broadcast by individuals. We see the good and the bad, and we don't know how to respond."

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