A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 12, 2011

No, Prime Minister

My brief here is the Middle East, and I'm not going to involve myself in any lengthy analysis of events elsewhere. Like anyone who loves London, I'm distressed, alarmed, and angered by the anarchy in London in the past few days. But I have no comments on the politics of the issue. But yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that it may be necessary to put restrictions on Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Messenger posts, in order to limit the ability of the bad guys to plan new looting attacks.

No, Prime Minister. I know the UK doesn't have the First Amendment with its protections of freedom of assembly and expression, but somewhere between the Field of Runnymede in 1215 and Fleet Street today, it has developed a tradition of free expression. Yes, there are limits. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theater and all that. But don't shut down or control media most people are using innocently. Then you start to look like you're rolling down that slippery slope towards Syria on July 3:

or towards Egypt on January 27:

I know,of course, you aren't suggesting that. But the country that wrote Magna Carta is also the country that invented the Court of Star Chamber, and even the US and its sacred First Amendment has been diddling at the margins in the name of counter-terrorism. I don't like tampering with the freedom of social networks, at least until the bombs are falling on Pearl Harbor.

Let me clarify that I have no qualms about the idea of using Facebook and Twitter posts to prosecute somebody. Monitor them, sure. (Of course, they're monitoring you. It's the Internet, a relatively open system.) Use their posts to prosecute them: fine. Did they really think that posts on a semi-public network would not be accessible to the authorities? Well, Duh. If they preach rebellion, go after them. If they advocate violence, there are laws against that.

My problem is the idea that you might need to shut down or restrict non-inciting but dissident speech, or that these laws could be used to read everybody's E-mail, or censor Twitter.

Enforce the laws, but let's think seriously before we advocate scrapping some of our most ancient traditions. Ben Franklin said something like, those who give up fundamental freedoms for a little temporary security deserve neither freedom nor security.  Britain, "Mother of the Free," deserves both. Don't go there, Mr. Cameron.


Anonymous said...


Michael Collins Dunn said...

Got it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Is that like BART's jamming of phone service in its "customer areas"?

Anonymous said...

A hashtag started on Twitter mashing up the ousted Egyptian leader’s name with the transit system: #MuBARTek.