LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron’s flirtation with the idea of social media censorship controls after recent riots might only be the beginning.
With Western democracies and emerging authoritarian states alike facing new threats from the rise of the Internet and social media, the temptation to try and regain control through censorship may grow.
Some experts say such attempts could backfire and jeopardise the legitimacy of governments, fuel fresh unrest and make it harder to gather intelligence and information.
One thing is certain, however. The information revolution has undermined those in authority and empowered a host of groups and individuals. Whether they are taking to the streets in large numbers to overthrow Arab leaders, organising “flash mobs” to loot stores or simply spreading dissent and awkward secrets, that is changing the global balance of power.
As governments draw up strategies for cyberspace, worrying not just about crime and politics but also the risk of militant or military attacks on critical infrastructure, they face fundamental questions about the power and limits of the state.
“One of the biggest challenges... is on the conceptual level,” says John Bassett, a former senior official at signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“Does a government attempt to control cyberspace as it would have tried to control its (real world) borders in the 20th century or does it develop security doctrines that go beyond traditional models of state control?”
Whilst China in particular has tried to control Internet access through its “great firewall” and a sophisticated network of censors, filters and internal monitoring, most states have embraced a largely unfettered, globalised Internet.
But despite Western rhetoric on free speech and criticism of authoritarian states for attempts to limit it -- for example, of Hosni Mubarak’s abortive attempt to shut down Egypt’s Internet -- the reality has always been more complex.
Attempts by the United States and its allies to block the dissemination of leaked state department cables via WikiLeaks might have largely failed, but Julian Assange and his organisation have been left largely starved of funds.
Agencies such as Britain’s GCHQ and the U.S. National Security Agency have huge powers and capabilities to monitor communications and detect crime and militancy. But trying to control what people say is another matter.
With Cameron threatening to temporarily block social networking sites during unrest and courts imposing harsh sentences on those accused of inciting riots, Chinese authorities have detected a kindred spirit from an unexpected quarter.
“The open discussion of containment of the Internet in Britain has given rise to new opportunity for the whole world,” said China’s “People’s Daily,” seen as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, in a weekend editorial.
“Media in the U.S. and Britain used to criticise developing countries for curbing freedom of speech. Britain’s new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the management of the Internet,” it said.
Not everyone is so sure. Cameron’s suggested social media controls have prompted a barrage of criticism and the sentencing of two young men to four years in prison for attempting to incite riots on Facebook was seen by some as an overreaction.
Perceptions that rioters are being given overly harsh sentences have also increased strains within the ruling Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition.
In many states, the economic crisis is already seen as fuelling unrest amongst a younger generation whose opportunities now fall well short of their aspirations. Trying to limit their Internet and social media freedoms might only make matters worse, just as Egypt’s Internet shutdown only brought more people onto the streets.
With even China’s micro-bloggers increasingly finding ways around controls to discuss online issues such as the Arab uprisings and the recent crash of a bullet train, some doubt the authorities have enough censors to keep ahead of the crowd.
“The starting point is to accept that by and large the Internet would be open and accessible whatever you try and do,” John Reid, a former defence and interior minister now running a think-tank at University College London who is working on a “cyber doctrine” for Britain -- told Reuters earlier this year.
“Because this technology empowers the individual, controlling it is particularly difficult to do. If you are from a censorship/control point of view, it won’t work.”
Some Western observers say they are appalled at Britain’s suggested crackdown, saying it misses the point: in previous generations some leaders blamed dissent on the printing press, telegraph and other communications tools, and ignored underlying issues.
“Unable to identify, let alone deal with, any potential root causes of the England riots, the full weight of the political class seems to be poised to challenge what in effect is the greatest expansion of free speech and personal liberty since the rise of the personal automobile and... home telephones,” said Alexander Klimburg, a cyber security expert at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs.
“This is wrong and the hysterical response will only seek to undermine confidence further in the powers that be.”
Nevertheless, many experts predict more confrontation between governments of all hues and the rising powers of the Internet, be they individual bloggers and hackers or the giant multinationals that actually control much of the traffic.
Already, Google in particular has had high profile disputes with authorities in China, Egypt and elsewhere. In June, executive chairman Eric Schmidt said he expected such tussles to get worse.
“I suspect this is going to become a point of tension between states and corporations... and, more importantly, a challenge to globalisation,” Ian Bremmer, president of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote earlier this year.
He said he believed authoritarian states in particular would try to find ways to fragment the market.
Heather Brooke, an American information campaigner living in London who was at the heart of the WikiLeaks saga, believes what she calls the “Information War” is only just beginning.
Technological advances have made it much harder for those in authority to control events and conceal secrets -- such as parliamentary expenses and phone hacking scandals -- but that has prompted an almost inevitable fight-back.
“Power is changing,” she says in an online video to publicise her new book “The Revolution Will Be Digitised.”
“The stakes are high... if the Internet is controlled, it could usher in an age of censorship, surveillance and oppression. Alternatively, we could be on the cusp of a new form of global democracy, with people in power.”
Editing by Jon Boyle