Following the UK riots, the major social media companies, including RIM, have been summoned to appear before the government to discuss the option to close down the major social networks in the event of similar ‘uprisings’ occurring again.
When news first broke with the suspicion that BBM (Blackberry Messenger) was being used to quickly inform large numbers of people about plans for disorder, many were discussing the potential to close down the network to prevent further spread of the BBMs. Some of the BBM messages were posted online as evidence of its use.
However, as swift action was not taken to do such, then it began to occur to more people that giving the government the right to take this level of action in a crisis could seriously affect freedom of speech, as well as businesses. The government has loudly condemned the actions of countries such as China and Libya closing down networks in the past, so it would seem marginally hypocritical to do the same in the UK.
It also clearly ignores the positive benefits that social networks have brought in similar circumstances viz Egypt, and also the UK riots when the voluntary clean ups organised via Twitter eg under the #riotwombles and #riotscleanup hashtags, must have saved the UK taxpayer, councils and businesses a fortune.
This approach also misses the fact that a huge amount of information was disseminated through the social networks which helped to provide photos, facts and allay the fears of many who were often poorly informed by the mass media and government. Whilst news crews were being attacked, and hence not venturing into the hardest hit areas until after the event, people who were present eg by virtue of living or working in the location were providing factual accounts, pictures and videos of the actuality of the situation.
If networks such as social media were to be closed down, en masse or in certain locations, whether for the duration of a crisis, or more likely for far longer than the actual disturbance, this could cause expensive havoc for businesses, who have begun to rely on social media marketing as an integral arrow to their online marketing bows. In addition, Blackberry is quite often the phone and network of choice for enterprises and businesses, and making it impossible to use for any length of time could only harm those businesses who use Research in Motion hardware and products. This usage is often company wide and losing that communications capacity could cause millions and millions of pounds worth of daily losses UK wide.
Should the government be allowed to take such a decision and could it do more harm than good? Many companies are seeing a hefty percentage of their revenue now coming from online sources and the Internet is one of the biggest sources of UK revenue now (according to Google’s Connected Kingdom report), generating over £100billion per year, and making the Internet a larger sector than transport, construction and utilities. Can we really afford to shut down any section of it, for any reason?
Businesses should begin to speak out about the government having the power to do so because it seems more a knee jerk reaction to the problem, when the government should focus on the causes of the problem. There also needs to be a wholesale acceptance that more good than harm may have been done by keeping the networks open and accessible for the duration of the riots, and business leaders should be speaking out as a matter of urgency before the meeting next Thursday.
The impact on business at a time of recession, or even at any point in the future, could prove disastrous.