In the aftermath of the ferocious poll tax riots of 1990, some wag stuck up a photo of the mayhem on a wall in Sydney University’s History Department and scrawled “1990 or 90AD?”

The allusion was not just to the decidedly pre-modern violence on display days earlier in Trafalgar Square but to Britain’s, and London’s, long history of social unrest. One of the routes of the Poll Tax marches, after all, had been deliberately arranged to follow the route of the Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century.

The poll tax campaign of 1990, to which time and changing fashions now give an air almost of Young Ones style hijinks, was of course far more innately political and organised than the last week’s events in London, but it serves to illustrate that, when it comes to civil disorder in the UK, we’ve been here many times before.

And that includes David Cameron’s response last night, in which he claimed social media had been used to organise the riots and his Government would look at ways to prevent people from using it for that purpose, and giving police discretion to remove face coverings in public. Later, in responding to questions, Cameron said broadcasters should also hand over un-aired footage of riots to police.

Cameron is merely walking in the footsteps of his predecessors. The British ruling élite has been here before, many times, and reacted the same way. One of the longer periods of civil unrest in England was in the early eighteenth century, when the country’s ruling élite and emerging middle class lived in semi-permanent fear of “Mr Mob”. The period produced the Black Act of 1723, which made it a capital offence to blacken one’s face or use a disguise — initially in royal parks, where poaching was rife, but eventually elsewhere as well.

So, there’s a model for Cameron for an anti-face covering regime right there, although the original Black Act was — plainly through an unfortunate lack of foresight  — repealed in the 1820s.

This period also produced the better-known Riot Act of 1715. That stayed on the lawbooks in various forms in Britain until 1973, although apparently its last outing was early last century. It enabled officials to demand (by way of, yes, “reading the Riot Act“) that any gathering of people “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together” disband immediately, on threat of death.

Sort of like an offline version of an internet kill-switch.

That’s more than a rhetorical stretch or bad pun. As I’ve previously explained this week, focusing on the technologies that enable interconnectedness misses the point, which is what people are choosing to do when they connect with each other, and why they choose to do it. Social media are merely targeted because they’re perceived as new and unfamiliar to institutional élites, which are always late-adopters.

No one would seriously talk about targeting the phone system because it is being used to coordinate illegal activity, but the internet is considered fair game. Moreover, as plenty of people, including Labour MP Tom Watson, have pointed out, social media, like all technologies of connectedness, are neutral. What’s important is what people choose to do with them. Without Twitter, there’d be no #riotcleanup in the aftermath of the disturbances.

The essence of what Cameron proposes is the digital equivalent of the Riot Act, demanding that people stop connecting with each other in ways that threaten order. Like the Riot Act, it won’t work, because people will connect together anyway. Remove one form of social media, and people will find other ways to connect up. The only truly effective way of suppressing the impact of social media is to turn off the internet and the mobile phone system altogether — the Mubarak solution. And even then, people jury-rigged dial-up internet to communicate.

There’s another way in which Cameron’s digital Riot Act isn’t new. 2011 has seen unremitting attacks on the internet from a variety of sources. I described these earlier in the year and suggested that there was a spectrum of such attacks, from cultural engineers to pre-digital gatekeeper industries trying to hang on to their business models, to governments using national security as a pretext for clamping down on the internet, to dictatorships engaged in all-out campaigns against net freedom. Cameron’s proposal fits perfectly into the third category, although the thinking behind it is more like that of cultural engineers and gatekeepers who don’t understand how interconnectedness has destroyed their ability to control information in the ways they used to.

But in joining the ranks of governments using security as a pretext for an internet crackdown, Cameron finds himself in an inconveniently hypocritical position. As J. David Goodman of the NYT pointed out, it was only in February that Cameron was lauding social media for its role in the Arab Spring.

“Our interests lie in upholding our values — in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law. But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.”

This is the same dilemma the Obama Administration is caught in — Hillary Clinton enthusiastically promotes and funds internet freedom abroad, while the US Government engages in illegal online surveillance, harasses net activists and seeks ways to destroy WikiLeaks at home.

I’ve argued before that history shows authorities eventually learn to live with interconnectedness after first trying to suppress it or ban it. But considerable damage is done before they eventually learn that trying to stop people connecting is a Canute-like task. Until they realize that, the internet and its ability to link people with each other will have to be defended.

Update: By fascinating coincidence, the San Francisco urban rail operator BART has provided an example of what a digital Riot Act might look like – concerned about a possible demonstration (which never occurred) aimed at its thuggish security personnel, BART took a leaf from Hosni Mubarak’s playbook and shut down mobiles and wireless access at several of its stations for 3 hours, depriving users of mobile phone (including emergency access) and wireless services, with the aim of preventing them being used to coordinate protest action. BART’s like action prompted an explosion of online rage under the #muBARTek hashtag, the now inevitable Anonymous response and detailed questions about exactly what it did – in response to which the company has already changed its story at least once on the crucial issue of whether it even told mobile service providers what it was doing before shutting down parts of their network. Full story here, but there’ll be plenty more on this. As David Cameron will discover, it’s very difficult to prevent people from using a network to plan activities you don’t want, without preventing everyone else from using it as well, including people who may need emergency assistance.

Peter Fray

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