A year ago, I wrote a blog posting, noting that just as The Economist used the price of a MacDonald Big Mac to measure a country's prosperity, so too, the level of a country's democracy could be determined by the level of its Blackberry usage. My article was written in response to the attempts made by Middle Eastern autocracies to ban Blackberries, because the regimes could not access user's details such as messaging and other data.
Now we face an almost mirror image of that argument, as Blackberries (and other social media are seen as the rioter's 'tool' and an enemy of our freedoms).
Now before I go on, I just want to say that I am no namby pamby on recent events. I favour the toughest measures possible (whether it be plastic bullets, water cannon or whatever) and the harshest punishments possible, in order to ensure that we never see a repeat of the last few days.
But, I feel deeply uneasy about 'the Government' or 'the authorities' regulating, restricting – in effect controlling – the use of social media or the use of Blackberries – both on grounds of political precedent and on practicality.
Let's look at political precedent first: the problem with every curtailment of liberty – however noble the intention – it always has a ratchet effect. Once you start restricting the internet in this way, it becomes so much easier to restrict it for other reasons. We may have a benign government now, but it is not inconceivable that a future government might seek to use these powers to restrict social media on simple grounds of legitimate criticism. You might think that such a course of action is far-fetched – and you may be right – but the problem is that any curtailment – opens the door to further infringement. As the saying goes, liberty is hard won but easily lost.
Second, let's look at practicality. How on earth do you ban the use of Blackberries et al in this way? Can you really curtail people from using Blackberry Messenger (BBM). They will just obtain another Blackberry with a different identity.
True, you can block off cell-phone signals in a particular area, but that hits not only the innocent, but also can be dangerous for those caught up in riots trying to contact the emergency services etc. Then there is censorship. Is the state really going to expand its power to such a degree to monitor every Facebook account, or force Research In Motion (the maker of Blackberries) to hand over trillions of gigabytes of data)? It is just not feasible.
Bad people will always take advantage of technology for evil purposes. Ban BBM and they will soon find another method to try and destroy our society. Technology – especially mobile technology – is Hydra's head writ large. We have to face the fact that it is pretty difficult to contain: instead let us do all we can to make sure that more people are using it as a for good rather than a force for bad.
Blaming social media for the riots is a bit like banning beer, because some people get drunk in Town Centres on a Saturday night. Much better to deal with the root causes of the riots, and prevent these individuals from abusing social media in the first place.
Let's remind ourselves of the good that Blackberries can bring in terms of empowerment, communication and the portabilty of the internet. Blackberry revolutionised email across the world – to make it accessible (without the need for any computer), and affordable, for the many. Why not strengthen our democracy by encouraging mobile communications rather than stifling it? It is a challenge, yes – but one well worth taking.