Today, David Cameron had this to say to Parliament on the role of technology in the recent riots:
“Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.
“So 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 violence, disorder and criminality. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”
It is a sad indictment of how poorly technology is understood in Government that this even made it into the statement. Aside from the fact that Blackberry Messenger is not a social network, the Whitehall response of blaming social media and BBM for the riots is only made worse by their proposed solution - let us see everything, or shut it down.
It’s a further sign of how inadequate the police’s intelligence gathering remains when so much of the discussion between those involved in the disorder took place in public forums.
To shut down social networking would require both shutting down the internet and mobile phone comms. Whether that is even possible, and ignoring the enormous economic impact it would have, the fact it is being considered should send a chill wind through the whole country.
Civil unrest - and indeed wars between nations - began, and were organised, long before modern technology. Technology facilitates faster action, but the underlying issues remain the same.
William Hague’s interview with Andrew Marr during the uprisings in Egypt offer an alternative viewpoint, which was clearly illustrated in a subsequent statement.
“The abuse of internet and mobile networks and, in particular, today’s increased intimidation and harassment of journalists, are unacceptable and disturbing.”
Well, ok, he hasnt said it directly - but in the debate around VAT, I was reminded of a contribution William Hague made to the Higher Education Bill debate.
I was sat in the public gallery when the former Conservative leader stood up and argued, extremely passionately, about how introducing top-up fees, something then PM Blair and many Conservatives supported, was not just an issue of policy - it was one of trust, given all major parties had stood on manifestoes ruling out the move.
He said: “We all said—the entire House of Commons said—that we would not introduce such legislation….Normally, manifestos contain contrasting promises for the electorate to choose from. But this was the same from every political party, and by my calculation it means that 635 or more of the 659 Members of Parliament stood on a platform of not introducing top-up fees.
It is not just the Government who are breaking faith with the electorate—the body politic is breaching their faith. We all go to schools and universities and say, “Politics matters, and your vote matters.” We are all ashamed in the House, or we jolly well should be, that only 59 per cent. of people voted in the general election. We tell people that their participation counts, but what are we supposed to say if we pass legislation that the entire House of Commons said it would not pass—if within two and a half years of the election it is passed through the House of Commons in direct defiance of all those pledges? I went to a primary school the other week to talk to the children about Westminster and what MPs do. An 11-year-old put up their hand and said, “But Mr. Hague how do we know, if you are going there for five years, that you are going to do what you said you would?” I said, “We all try.” In fact, in that rare spirit of cross-party generosity that comes across us all when we talk to people who do not have a vote for another seven years, I even said, “Mr. Blair tries. We all try. Sometimes it doesn’t work, aspirations are unfulfilled, targets aren’t met, but we try to keep the promises that we made to the people.” What will we say in future?”
While it wasnt a manifesto pledge not to increase VAT, and as the TPA’s video on the topic points out, during the campaign senior members of all major parties avoided every opportunity to say their plans included raising VAT. Indeed, they went as far as to say their plans did not involve raising VAT.
I think it’s time to heed these wise words. Mr Osborne should think what he will say to the country in five years before he gives his budget today.