There have been a lot of mixed messages lately about social networking and messaging.
Many people in the United States and Europe have praised the role that Twitter, Facebook and text messaging played in the uprisings in the Middle East that had contributed to democracy movements in Iran, Tunisia and other countries and led to the resignation of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.
But recently we've heard very different messages from some police and politicians in the United Kingdom and from officials at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) in San Francisco, which actually cut off cell phone service at four underground stations to quell a planned protest.
BART derails cell service
The irony is that only a handful of protesters actually showed up for last week's protest but thanks to BART's cell-phone cutting , there were more protesters at Monday's follow-up demonstration that resulted in the closure of several stations. In the meanwhile, the interruption in cell phone service was condemned by some free speech advocates and is being investigated by the FCC. As far as I know, it's the first time a U.S.-based government agency has shut down cell phone service, a tactic used unsuccessfully by former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in an attempt to thwart protests in his country.
UK keeps messages flowing despite calls from politicians
On the UK front, London's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Kavanagh reportedly told BBC Radio that "social media and other methods have been used to organize these levels of greed and criminality and we need to adapt and learn from what we are experiencing." That isn't necessarily a condemnation of the media, but it's an acknowledgment that police don't know quite how to handle the way the technology is being used by people in the streets.
Based on reports, it appears that BlackBerry Messenger, not Twitter or Facebook, is the tool of choice for rioters and looters in Britain. The app, which is free from BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM), lets people send messages to individuals or groups of people that can be password protected with a PIN number. The messages can be forwarded to others with BlackBerrys but because they are encrypted, they might not be available to authorities and they're much harder to trace.
British Parliament member David Lammy used Twitter to call upon Research In Motion to suspend its BBM service, tweeting "BBM clearly helping rioters outfox Police. Suspend it."
This incident brings up a lot of issues similar to the First Amendment issues here in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has supported the free speech rights of people who espouse some pretty unpopular and downright ugly causes, including famously backing the right of a neo-Nazi party to march in Skokie, Ill. As civil liberties advocates often say, protecting popular or socially acceptable speech is easy, what's hard is when you come to the defense of people who are saying things that are despicable or potentially could cause others to act out in ways that are violent or dangerous.
Technology is Neutral
Well, the same is true with technology. The servers that house Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger don't have a political, social or legal agenda. Their job is simply to transmit what people post and deliver it to people who want to see it.
Those posts can be in support of causes that many of us support, such as the right of Iranians to freely assemble or the right of Egyptians to demand the ouster of an oppressive leader. But the same technologies can also be used to espouse unpopular causes or even rally people to anti-social, illegal or destructive acts.
No one complains when technology is used to organize a "flash mob" to break out in a spontaneous song and dance routine in Grand Central Terminal, yet the mayor of Philadelphia was outraged when young people were using those same technologies to organize a mob that attacked people on the street. The mayor was correct in condemning the behaviors, but it's important to remember that the technology -- even the idea of using technology to call people to action -- is neither good nor evil. It's neutral.
Ironically, Facebook decided to release its own Facebook Messenger product during one of the worst days of London rioting. Like RIM's BBM service, Facebook Messenger is being offered as a way to help people communicate with their friends. But like all tools, it could be used for nefarious purposes as well. While authorities should educate themselves about these tools, they need to understand that their role is to discourage and punish illegal behavior, not neutral technologies.
Arrest the hooligans if they break the law, but don't shoot the BlackBerry or Facebook Messenger and let the cell phones ring, even if it means having to put up with some protesters in your railway station.