Tag: london

Welcoming a New Common Noun: ‘the Mubarak’

Officials in London are looking everywhere but the mirror for places to affix blame for the recent riots. Beyond the immediate-term answer, individual rioters themselves, the target of choice seems to be “social media.” Prime Minister David Cameron is considering banning Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger to disable people from organizing themselves or reporting the locations and activity of the police.

Nevermind substantive grievance. Nevermind speech rights. We’ve got scapegoats to find!

[Events like this are nothing but a vessel into which analysts pour their ideological preconceptions, so here’s a sip of mine: Just like a spoiled child doesn’t grow up to be a gracious and kind adult, a population sugar-fed on entitlements doesn’t become a meek and thankful underclass. Also: people don’t like it when the police kill unarmed citizens. Which brings us to some domestic U.S. ineptitude…]

Two-and-a-half years ago, a (San Francisco) Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer shot and killed an unarmed man on a station platform in full view of a train full of riders (video). Sentenced to just two years for involuntary manslaughter, he was paroled in June. This week, upon learning of planned protests of the killing that may have disrupted service, BART officials cut off cell phone service in select stations, hoping to thwart the demonstrators.

[Update: A correspondent notes that the BART protest was in relation to another, more recent killing.]

The Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly criticized the tactic in a post called “BART Pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco.” It’s the same technique that deposed Eqyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak used to try to prevent the uprising that toppled him.

What’s true in Egypt is true in the U.K. is true in the United States. People will use the new communications infrastructures—cell phone networks, social media platforms, and such—to express grievance and to organize.

Western government officials may think that our lands are an idyll compared to the exotic savagery of the Middle East. In fact, we have people being killed by inept law enforcement in the U.S. and the U.K. just like they have people being killed by government thugs in the Middle East. What seems like a difference in kind is a difference in degree—and it’s no difference at all to the dead.

Among the prescriptions that flow from the London riots and BART’s communications censorship are the intense need for greater professionalism and reform of police practices. Wrongful killings precipitate (rightful) protest and (wrongful) violence and looting. Public policies in the area of entitlements and immigration that deny people a stake in their societies need a serious reassessment.

But we also need to keep in mind the propensity of government officials—in all governments—to seek control of communications infrastructure when it serves their goals. From the perspective of the free-speaking citizen, centralization of communications infrastructure is a key weakness. It gives fearful government authorities a place to go when they want to attack the public’s ability to organize and speak.

The Internet itself is a distributed, packet-switched network that generally resists censorship and manipulation. Internet service, however, is relatively centralized, with a small number of providers giving most Americans the bulk of their access. In the name of “net neutrality,” the U.S. government is working to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could later use for censorship or protest suppression. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are also relatively centralized. It is an important security to have many of them, and to have them insulated from government control. The best insulation is full decentralization, which is why I’m interested in the work of the Freedom Box Foundation and open source social networks like Diaspora.

The history of communications freedom is still being written. Here’s to hoping that “a Mubarak” is always a failure to control people through their access to media.

Disgraceful Soundbite from the London Riots

I don’t know which part of this truly dismaying interview is more upsetting: the joy in their voices as these girls describe the “fun” they are having at the riots and their hope that they continue the next day, the class-warfare-based justification they feel for the looting and burning of shops, or their almost comic ignorance of which party holds control of the government (“Conservatives. Yeah. Whatever who it is. I dunno…”).

Listen and Weep, courtesy of the Beeb.

A ‘Special’ Relationship?

When President Obama meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, they should focus on the two wars that involve both the U.S. and British militaries (Afghanistan and Libya). But these discussions will take place in the context of diminishing British military capability.

At a time when the United States should be shedding some of the burdens of policing the globe, and encouraging other countries to step forward to defend themselves, the British are moving in the opposite direction. They are cutting their military, and tacitly becoming more dependent upon U.S. power. The end result will be a United Kingdom that is less able to assist us in the future.

The United States today spends far more on its military than does the United Kingdom, and the gap is likely to grow. This is sure to have an impact on the U.S.-UK relationship.

The number of British troops, ships and planes that are available for missions has dropped and will continue to if Cameron pushes through significant cuts in British military spending. He has proposed actual cuts, not the slowing in the rate of growth that Obama and Defense Secretary Gates have presided over so far.

The special relationship has been cemented by the numerous occasions in which British and American leaders have cooperated to address common security challenges. The most important of these involve U.S. and British troops fighting side by side.

But shrinking British defense spending could strain the relationship.  The goodwill that has prevailed between the two countries could be in jeopardy, and Americans may find it harder to look upon the Brits as the “good” ally, the one that sticks by us through thick and thin. And if the American public grows disenchanted with British contributions to U.S.-led military missions, the British public may then hold less generally positive opinions of the United States.

A version of this post originally appeared in The National Interest Online.