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.