Blocking twitter to stop a riot?

In an effort to control the communications used by rioters, the UK government are seeking ways to limit access to social media during a riot.

There’s an old saying amongst techie types – “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. And another one is similar – “It is a mistake to try and solve social problems with technological solutions.” Both of these maxims have been tried, tested, and validated again and again by people who tend to make the mistake of thinking that in order to control action, it is necessary to control communication.

I see various talking heads suggesting that the recent unrest is the fault of (pick your own particular target group). It appears from looking at who have gone through the courts that there is a wide spectrum of people, most of whom have some technological literacy.

Limiting access to “social media” is unlikely to prevent future riot occurrences, for the following reasons.

1. Blocking access by IP address, even if you could put every ISP under riot control, would not work. VPNs and tunnelling are consumerised produucts and are easy to use to evade bans (as seen in recent court rulings to block access to Newzbin).

2. Putting every ISP under riot control would be an interesting message regarding free speech, and would be liable to a) go wrong b) create more unrest

3. Turning off internet access from out of the UK in its entirety could have unforseen circumstances. It is probable that critical national infrastructure would fail (for example, grocery/fuel logistics, electronic payment systems, and some telecommunications trunking VOIP).

There is a real failure in intelligence to determine that these channels are being used to foment unrest, however selective blocking is technically hard-to-impossible, and blanket blocking of all IP traffic in the UK is likely to increase panic rather than reduce it.

Making the frank admission that the policies of the last 30 years have been exposed as deeply flawed will require great intellectual honesty and moral courage. Its a lot easier to create a technical bogeyman and declare that as the problem.

Still, at least no one is offering to “hug a hoodie” any more.