borrowing from the despots

Freedom of speech and the internet must be respected in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square. It is rock-solid sentiment, as sound today as it was in February when British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered it to an audience in Kuwait.

Freedom of speech and the internet must be respected in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.

It is rock-solid sentiment, as sound today as it was in February when British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered it to an audience in Kuwait.

He was laying out his thoughts on the Arab Spring, when citizens rose up against repressive regimes throughout the Middle East.

Britain will insist on freedom of speech and the internet, freedom of assembly and the rule of law, he said.

“These are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere.”

But that was before young hoodlums started sacking posh boutiques in London and setting fire to cars and buses in other British cities.

Now, as the smoke clears and the brooms are mobilized, Cameron is sounding a bit like one of the Mideast dictators he was criticizing a few months ago – threatening to shut down or censor social media sites.

Yes, we’re talking about Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.

These are buzz corporations, new brands that trendmakers in society have been talking about for the last couple of years, but that many average folks still don’t understand.

Today, there are plenty who scoff at Twitter -“Why would I care to read about what someone ate for breakfast today?” is a common refrain.

That’s a dangerous misconception. There is a lot more going on beneath the banal “partying with Vanessa, LOL” veneer of the social networks.

They are the new media. And our society censors them at our risk.

These tools, for that is all they are, allow people to talk to one another, much like they did using the old-fashioned phone or word-of-mouth. That’s all. It’s a means of talking to one another.

The difference is efficiency – they give everyone a broadcasting licence, allowing them to communicate with thousands of people at once.

That means, in the face of a tidal wave or a breaking dam, one person can warn an entire city with the push of a button.

It also means groups of people angry with a government can share their grievances and solutions and take action. Immediately.

Not too long ago – less than a decade – that wasn’t very easy to do.

A wanna-be revolutionary would have to seize the local TV or radio station before they could start broadcasting their message to others in the region, building support for their cause.

Today, things are far easier. Which is why Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi and other despots have had such a difficult summer in the Middle East.

Looking at those nations, it is easy for citizens and leaders in western nations to get sanctimonious.

The repressive, brutal policies that bred the dissent were clear.

And westerners, like Cameron, championed the revolutionaries who mobilized against repressive leaders using these new communication tools.

But now the shoe is on the other foot.

Packs of ruffians are rising up in western cities, like Vancouver and London, burning and looting electronics stores and swanky shops seemingly indiscriminately, and they are telling their mates about it using their cellphones.

Our leaders and well-heeled ruling classes are scandalized. They cannot understand what is going on in these youngsters’ heads.

And, as a result, guys like Cameron are lashing out at Twitter, Facebook and other modes of communication – essentially cutting the lines of the modern phone system – to restore order.

But, as Cameron himself noted, free speech is essential in a functioning democracy.

When the government deputizes police to suspend that right, it moves toward becoming the repressive state it so often demonizes.

It may be the youngsters tossing rocks, burning vehicles and stealing Gucci bags are simple goons.

Or, in a society with a widening gap between the rich and poor, there may be something deeper going on, something that our society’s incredible wealth hides from our view.

One can’t help but wonder if Gaddafi and Mubarak weren’t as incredulous as Cameron – wondering what in the hell is wrong with people.

This isn’t about condoning the recent violence in London or Vancouver. The louts who caused the crime deserve to be brought to justice.

The system has to do its job.

But that’s different than suspending free speech.

Politicians who blame social media are a little like contractors who blame a hammer for creating a hole in the wall.

The fix isn’t stopping people from talking.

The real solution is far trickier.

Society has to figure out what motivates the mob to behave so violently, destroying their very neighbourhoods.

That suggests a far bigger societal problem exists. We ignore it at our peril.

“The internet and social media is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression,” said Cameron in February.

“It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption, of having to make do with what they’re given, of having to settle for second best.”

It was as true in February as it is now.

So the real question is, what are we going to do about it?

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Diane McLeod-McKay, Yukon’s Ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, filed a petition on Dec. 11 after her office was barred from accessing documents related to a child and family services case. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government rejects Ombudsman requests for documentation filed to Supreme Court

Diane McLeod-McKay filed a petition on Dec. 11 after requests for documents were barred

Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens, left, celebrates his first NHL goal with defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen during the second period of a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 22 in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Cozens notches first NHL goal in loss to Capitals

The Yukoner potted his first tally at 10:43 of the second period on Jan. 22

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Former CEO of Great Canadian Gaming, actress charged after flying to Beaver Creek for COVID-19 vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

Most Read