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What Role Does Government Have In Technology?

Ankit Tyagi |
August 21, 2011 | 5:24 p.m. PDT

Associate Tech Editor

Throughout the rioting in London, it became evident that social media and communication technology were serving as a vital tool in the high participation and organization of the rioters.

Twitter and Blackberry Messaging (BBM),two of the largest contributing pieces of tech during these events, provided rioters a way to communicate in privately to corrodinate action. For this reason, U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron considered blocking use of social networks altogether.

Should government be able to instantly stop these people's cell phone reception? Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
Should government be able to instantly stop these people's cell phone reception? Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

In the face of a possible uprising, it may sound resonable to jump to rash decision. However, the question then becomes: Does this become a matter of basic human rights? Should the government have the power to "kill" the Interent--one of the most ubiquitous communication tools today?

Governments in serveral countries have already tested the waters by restricting Internet usage with mixed results.

During the "Twitter Revolution" in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak shut down access to Twitter in an attempt to hold his reign--one of the earliest known attempts of disabling Internet communication service. More recently, police in San Francisco requested mobile broadband providers to temporarliy shut down cell service in a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station to prevent an imminent protest involving a recent police-involved shooting.

In the case of the BART station, the restriction of Internet access proved to be more harmful than useful in preventing citizen uproar. The FCC, in an attempt to placate the vociferous crowds, said an investigation would be done to study the matter, but the damage had already been done.

In an effort to show their dismay with the decision of the government, "hacktivist" group, Anonymous, infiltrated the BART webpage and exposed private information of its employees publishing user credentials and other private data.  

Witth regards to London, Louise Mensch, a prominent Conservative in Britain's Parliament, spurred the argument by tweeting, "I don't have a problem with a brief shutdown of social media just as I don't have a problem with a brief road or rail closure."

Mensch said, "Social media isn't any more important than a train station, road or bus service." After facing heavy opposition on Twitter, Mensch's policy was even compared to actions taken by Iran during riots earlier in March, when government denied citizens access to the Internet within the country. 

According to Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, disabling an online service punishes innocent people for actions of others allowing for the creation of unbalanced laws and abusement of rights of citizens. Instead Killock says other courses of actions can be used to prevent misuse of social networks, for instance suspensioning user accounts rather than the entire service for everyone.

Recently, Senator Joe Lieberman has sponsored a bill in the Senate that could give the President the power to shut down the Internet. Dubbed the "Internet Kill Switch bill," this act would create a new agency within the Department of Homeland Security that forces private sector companies to be "subject to command" in case of emergency.

U.S. tech lobby group TechAmerica says creating such a kill switch is concerning because it gives too much power to one person and opens the door for invasion of privacy on the Internet.

When Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, was asked during an interview on NPR about whether the First Amendment should be updated to be kept relevent with advances in technology, he said:

"James Madison was not thinking about television back in 1791, and yet we've been able to use these core principles, which basically say government cannot interfere with our freedom to express ourselves."

Although amending the Constitution may be a little extreme, politicians will definitely need to work together to figure out what their role will be in the tech world.


Reach Ankit Tyagi here.

Follow him on Twitter @ankittya.

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