Posts Tagged 'regulating social media'

Terrorising Twitter

Pesky things, terrorists. They have a habit of misappropriating everyday useful objects like cars, rucksacks and fertiliser for their own nefarious means and now, if a report from the US Army is to be believed, they’ve now added Twitter to that list.

The story, which circulated earlier in the week, brought a predictable amount of sarcasm from Twitter users (or at least the ones on my stream). It’s quite possible they use Twitter – and Facebook and MySpace and other social media communities.

But, especially with Twitter, even with locked updates, they’re hardly the most secure of sites to if you’re planning another 9/11. Given that marketing and PR professionals are pretty good at trawling these kind of sites for relevant users, you’d like to think it isn’t beyond the police force to do the same.

But what’s worrying isn’t necessarily the thought that Twitter could be used to blow us up (and I’m sure they’ve got plenty of other methods of communication that a microblogging service used by geeks, PRs and early adopters). No, it’s the fact that we’re seeing a lot more of these kind of stories just as the government is making ever more frequent noises about internet regulation.

Much of the coverage is fairly unquestioning – possibly because it ticks a couple of fashionable news angles, in fear and an emerging new fad. But a lot of it is built on pure speculation. Take these paragraphs from the BBC article [1]:

“A chapter on Potential for Terrorist Use of Twitter notes that first reports of the Los Angeles earthquake in July appeared on the service before established news outlets.

And the relevance of this is?

“Terrorists could theoretically use Twitter social networking in the US as an operational tool.”

Indeed they could. Note use of word theoretically.

“Authorities in both the US and the UK are increasingly worried about the potential for terrorists to use the latest communication technologies including sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and gaming networks.”

And that neatly encapsulates what I’m on about.

There’s no doubt that there are some Very Bad People using the internet – people who it’s a good thing the authorities are monitoring. But – and at this stage it’s difficult to find a decent set of words without somebody going ‘paranoid much?’ – there’s an awful lot of rhetoric flying around about the need for regulation on the internet.

We’ve already had Culture Secretary Andy Burnham call for a debate on regulation, a similar call from Ofcom’s outgoing chief, and plans to tap into pretty much all of our data online.

Quite aside from the fact that trying to regulate the internet – and the noises are sufficiently vague enough to leave little clue as to what form this would take and how they’d go about it, although that’s never normally been a problem for politicians before – is nigh-on impossible, it’s also debatable how much of a public desire there is for it.

So, we’re seeing a set of arguments being deployed that politicians usually bring out in these kind of situations:

1. Terrorists could use it.

2. Won’t somebody think of the children.

And added to this is the slightly vague and new category:

3. People often say nasty things about other people online and we just don’t know who’s saying what.

There are valid point to be had one points one and two, but there’s nothing that our current laws can’t tackle providing the police are given adequate online resources and training.

With point two (ok, yes I know these are vague, somewhat facetious, and cover a multitude of sins), there’s also a discussion to be had about better educating children to be more aware about how they use personal details and conduct relationships online. But it’s debatable how much of a difference regulating, say, social networks would make.

Point three has been covered behind the link, although is largely drivel.

It wouldn’t be a urge surprise to see a trickle of stories highlighting statistics or reports that all back tighter regulation on the internet, and these will no doubt be supplemented by a couple of unfortunate real-life examples (which will make the news precisely because they’re so unusual, rather than be indicative of a larger concern) in order to build a case for greater internet regulation.

When that happens, expect the rest of us to take years to work out exactly what this means and what you’re likely to get prosecuted for or have shut down online (I imagine Devil’s Kitchen would be one of the first to go, given the high level of (funny) abuse directed at politicians.

Ok, perhaps there’s a level of paranoia on my part here, and I’m well aware that many of the arguments made here are somewhat vague and general, plus there’s probably a couple of straw men in the above words.

But this current government has time and again shown a complete willingness to try a regulate and monitor the public to within an inch of our lives while curtailing free speech and civil liberties. It’s not a massive surprise that they’ll move online (and don’t think the other lot will be any better).

Remember, this is a government that once declared that legislation against Brian Haw was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it was worth it because this was one rather large nut [2].

Granted, this government isn’t the US army, but the Twitter and terrorists story felt a lot like scaremongering except with tanks in the virtual world rather than outside Heathrow.

There is a serious, and rational, debate to be had about child protection and/or terrorism online, but simply saying Twitter could be used for terrorists is not it. And politicians tend, in recent years, to prefer to pass more regulation than bother to have a sensible and rational debate.

It’s not a great surprise when I say I’m a big fan of social media, and its potential to help advance communication and democracy and any number of other positive things on a worldwide scale.

Some of it isn’t mainstream, some of it’s confusing to people who don’t understand it, or have been on the receiving end of a flaming early on. But neither of those are reason enough to push restrictive legislation, in whatever form that may take and curtail freedom of speech, expression and sharing of ideas online.

One day, hopefully, we’ll get that debate offline. But in the meantime, expect plenty more dire warnings about child safety and terrorism online [3].

[1] Yes, I’m aware this is from Radio 1 Newsbeat. However, they’re usually pretty good at condensing issues and, because of their audience, often tend to be a bit more insightful than other outlets, partly as the story’s often broken down to its core issues.

[2] And whatever you think about Brian Haw, it’s difficult to deny he’s got a right to protest about whatever he likes in a free country.

[3] This really isn’t to play down both of these issues, but whatever’s decided shouldn’t come at the expense of treating every online user as a potential terrorist, child abuser and general ne’er to do well. Surprisingly enough, we don’t need governments to look after us on here – and given their general track record of keeping our data, you wouldn’t trust them ether. Given the option of being ruled by government or Google, I’d take Google every time.


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December 2022

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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com