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?