British PM David Cameron’s Response to London Riots — Hypocrisy or Safety First?

The British prime minister sings a different tune about social media now that the uprising is on home soil

In a speech to Parliament on Thursday, David Cameron said he was considering limiting social media sites because of their role in the riots paralyzing London.

Many of the rioters, angry about police violence in a black neighborhood — not to mention general economic conditions — have used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate their attacks.

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Cameron said this may be grounds for government intervention.

"We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting," he told Parliament.

Yet as the New York Times points out, Cameron was singing a different tune when it came to the riots of the "Arab Spring."

When citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya took to the streets to protest their authoritarian regimes,  he spoke out in support of their efforts and their use of technology to achieve their goals.

"It belongs to a new generation for whom technology — the Internet and social media — is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression," Cameron said in February. "It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption, of having to make do with what they’re given, of having to settle for second best."

Potential limits on social media are just the beginning. Cameron has also called on television networks to hand over footage of the riots to the police so that officers can use it as evidence.

This all smacks of hypocrisy and a repudiation of the free speech rights that England, the United States and many countries have championed for years.

Social media may have had a hand in helping the rioters organize, but as Reuters' Anthony DeRosa demonstrates, it also played a major role in disseminating information to both the public and the authorities.

Much as with the phone-hacking scandal, the government response is trending toward limits on the press when it should head in the opposite direction. The morally bankrupt practices of editors and reporters at News of the World would not have been uncovered if not for the dilligence of journalists, particularly those at the Guardian, and later, the New York Times.

In the case of the riots, not only did social media help individuals express their concern — albeit in a reprehensible way — but it helped demonstrate the full extent of the danger and unrest.

Without social media, fewer people would be aware of what had transpired, placing less pressure on the authorities to sort it out. Many of the calls for Prime Minister David Cameron to return from his vacation originated on Twitter.

There would also be less information out there, thus hampering the police's efforts in another way.

No one is condoning violent action, but just as the protestors of the Arab Spring deserved a chance to air their grievances, so do the rioters.

Social media is neither the principal problem nor its solution, but a vehicle for free speech. Last I checked, England still endorses that.