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Why the UK Government Would Be Wrong To Block Social Media

The UK government is getting in a tizz about social media, specifically its use in publicising and coordinating the recent riots which have erupted in English cities over the past week. Several prominent politicians have suggested blocking access to social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, when civil disturbance is likely or underway, as reported by the BBC, Telegraph and other news media.

They're wrong, very wrong, and I'd like to explain why.

When I was an IT Director of a large company in the UK, managers came to me on several occasions to ask that the company should ban access to Facebook etc. because of staff abusing their ability to access social media during work time. My reply was consistent, "If you ban Facebook they'll move onto something else. We'll enter a never-ending and destructive cycle of progressively banning more and more sites, and ultimately we'll lose".

If the UK chooses to block Twitter, Facebook etc. temporarily, then those people who want to communicate now via social media will move elsewhere. There are many social media networks, it would be very difficult to block them all, and it's very doubtful that the government knows or can monitor them all. In China, Brazil, and many other countries there are social media networks that are locally more popular than Facebook, outside the control of the UK, but entirely accessible by UK citizens. Blocking the main players would simply not stop those who are determined to communicate, it would merely create more antipathy to the government, police and state.

Even if the UK authorities did manage an effective block of current social media sites it wouldn't stop agitators and wannabe rioters from communicating, the reality is that any competent techie with a credit card and an Internet connection could set up another, new, social network in half an hour; hosted outside the UK, using open-source social media software available for free. No it wouldn't be Twitter or Facebook, but it would have similar, if simpler features, and if hosted on a good cloud platform such as Amazon Web Services, could handle quite enough traffic to accommodate the needs of the UK's discontented youth. With another half-hour's effort in publicising it through text messages, email, bulletin boards and other less prominent communications platforms it could have an audience of 100,000 spread throughout the UK, and would be totally "under the radar" of the authorities until they started to investigate why yet another riot happened despite them having blocked Facebook and Twitter.

Very simply, there is no way for the UK government to win this battle except by shutting down the Internet in the UK, something that would be commercially unacceptable to UK business, and, as the lessons of the Arab Spring demonstrate, still wouldn't work. It's time for the UK authorities to change their attitude, mass peer-to-peer communication is here to stay, it cannot be prevented, the genie is out of the bottle. Attempting to block the most popular social media services will not help to prevent riots, it will merely cause more discontent amongst the already resentful mal-contents whom the UK authorities have so alienated.

I'm no politician, I don't pretend to know the answer to the UK's social woes, but as a techie I can tell the UK government now, with absolute authority, that blocking social media sites will not work, it will only make matters worse.

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