Social media has been rightly credited with helping to organize democratic movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. But like any technology or information source, social media can be used for destructive ends. Unfortunately, officials here and abroad are responding in a stunningly heavy-handed manner that suggests democracy may be in trouble closer to home.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, under fire for the nation's inability to quell the riots in London and elsewhere, has told Parliament he wants the government to consider banning some people from using Facebook and Twitter if they are thought to be using them to plot criminal activity. Cameron's frustration is understandable, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter indeed give hooligans—along with democracy activists—an efficient way or organizing people. But the proposed crackdown is alarming, amounting to a preemptive denial of free speech and association prized in an open society. [See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the mideast uprisings.]
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit officials said they shut down power to cellular towers between certain stations last week to thwart activists planning a protest of a fatal shooting by BART police in early July. That action, of course, punished everyone, not just those who might or might not have been planning a protest. And what is wrong with a peaceful protest?
To be sure, the law needs to catch up with technology. Some online transgressions have rightly been identified as crimes, such as child pornography. The law is woefully behind on matters of online harassment, slander, libel and plagiarism, especially in an age when people seem to think that the ability to cut and paste makes it acceptable to steal someone else's writing. The abhorrently irresponsible behavior of the team at WikiLeaks is an example of how much more damaging it is to have the Internet available to reveal sensitive national security information. But Facebook and Twitter are not themselves the problem; they are just the newest tools being used for organizing people, both for constructive and destructive purposes. Social media should not be used to break the law. But banning or preventing the use of technology doesn't protect our democracy. It undermines it.