Britain’s Prime Minister has called for a possible shutdown of social media in the wake of widespread rioting organized at least in part by applications such as BlackBerry messenger and Twitter.
Meanwhile, here in the US, the FCC has just announced that it is going to update 911 technology so that in an emergency you will not be limited to just making a voice call. Emergency responders will also be able to receive text messages, videos, photos, and automatic GPS location information.
The contrast between the two announcements starkly illustrates the double-edged sword of the technology that we all have come to rely on so heavily. It is the age-old morality play of good versus evil played out on a global stage with high tech toys.
In Britain, where the government is considering a crackdown on the use of social media, it also risks shutting down a valuable communication channel for everyone – even those not even remotely connected to the riots.
As we watch these events unfold, we should reflect on what price we as a society are willing to pay for freedom of speech, and how far we are willing to allow the government to restrict that freedom in times of emergency.
There is a reason why the First Amendment came first. Our forefathers knew that restricting people’s ability to communicate with one another was a totalitarian government’s first choice and greatest power for enforcing the status quo.
Knowing that, however, puts the responsibility solely on our shoulders to recognize that once the flames of social unrest begin to burn – free speech may be our first freedom to go up in smoke.
Don’t think it couldn’t happen here. What’s going on in the UK is a huge wake-up call, and we need to pay attention.