In today’s Wall Street Journal lies a ludicrous opinion piece by one L. Gordon Crovitz, in which Crovitz argues that it’s simply no big deal for BART or the UK to shut down cell networks, or Twitter, or hey, why not the Internet, because those things can be used for bad stuff.
The title of the piece? “Techno-Utopians Are Mugged by Reality.”
As you know, I’m no techno-utopian. But since Crovitz quoted me in the piece (without using my name, hilariously enough), I feel compelled to address his implication that those of us who see the BART cell network shutdown as a civil liberties issue are somehow under the illusion that technology can only be used for good. Mr. Crovitz apparently missed my piece today on how the Syrian government is using social networks against its citizens, but I digress.
Crovitz asks rhetorically (and, might I add, snarkily) the following: “If Britain can act against BlackBerry and Twitter, how can anyone complain about Arab despots or Chinese censors closing down the Internet to dissidents?”
Well, Mr. Crovitz, that’s funny you should ask. After Australia set forth its plan to enact a countrywide filtering plan a few years back, China set about defending its own censorship by pointing to the land down under. And South Africa took the cue from Australia to set about discussing their own plans (which fortunately never materialized). So indeed, when we in the United States with our holier-than-thou Internet freedom strategy start blocking networks, you’re damn right the world starts pointing to us as an example.
Furthermore, Mr. Crovitz, I was on the BART last time a protest happened. And guess what? There was no violence. So, if your point was that it’s okay for governments to shut down networks in the event of violence (as we’ve seen in the UK these past few days), but you also think it’s okay for BART to do it to avoid “disruptions of service,” then where do you really draw the line?
Crovitz also seems convinced that shutting down networks would actually prevent violence, a claim for which I’ve seen little evidence. I mean, it certainly doesn’t shut down protests–remember Secretary of State Clinton’s February speech in which she noted that? I believe her specific words were “The protests continued despite the internet shutdown. People organized marches through flyers and word of mouth and used dial-up modems and fax machines to communicate with the world.”
Riiiight. Shutting down networks doesn’t prevent protests, and it won’t prevent violence, either. In fact, since we know that authorities in the UK are already monitoring social networks, then we could argue that leaving Twitter open better allows police there to identify rioters and pursue actual criminals…rather than stifling all of us in an attempt to somehow prevent speech.
Ah, but Crovitz addresses that point too, with such rhetorical flourish I’m surprised he’s not a GOP contender. He says, quoting reporter Robert Andrews from paidcontent:UK website: “So addicted are we to our electronic connections, we simply cannot bear to be parted, for even an hour or two, in the name of public safety while London burns.”
Ah yes. We who demand the right to free expression online are simply Twitter addicts who don’t give a damn about public safety.
Crovitz’s arguments only go downhill from there. He cites Facebook’s removal of the Third Intifada page as a good thing. Funny that he doesn’t mention how Facebook’s removal of that page caused more than thirty new pages to crop up in its place.
Because that’s exactly what will happen if we continue like this. Getting behind censorship here will make it easier for despots to get behind censorship elsewhere, and allowing the BART to remain unaccountable for their actions will give the green light to other actors to take overbroad steps like that in the future.
But that’s okay, Mr. Crovitz. I don’t expect you to understand.