Laurie Penny: Keeping speech free is one way to rebuild our society

Are we allowed to post angry tweets about overthrowing the Government? To organise protests if there's a chance they might turn rowdy?

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There are all sorts of interesting ways to humiliate yourself publicly on Facebook, but organising a riot nobody shows up to must rank among the most face-reddening. At the height of last week's civil disorder, 20-year-old Jordan Blackshaw created the event page "Smash Down in Northwich Town", inviting contacts to meet up for a spot of looting behind the local branch of McDonald's – but after his friends failed to take him up on the call to get "this kickin' off all over", he was arrested. Along with Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, who created a page called "Warrington Riots", Blackshaw was sentenced to four years in prison for "inciting disorder".

Four years for faffing about on Facebook might seem a tad excessive. Our leaders, however, have been reminding us for days that when the streets are on fire, the normal rules of law, order and social decency are suspended. This principle now seems to extend as much to politicians and lawmakers as it does to those who ransacked England's inner cities. Across the country, courts are being urged to disregard sentencing guidelines when rushing through the convictions of those involved, however tangentially, in the riots. In Brixton, a student was jailed for six months for looting £3.50 worth of bottled water from Lidl, while in Manchester, a mother of two received five months for receiving a pair of stolen shorts. But the sentencing of the "Chester Facebook Two", besides being the longest handed down so far, sets an extremely worrying precedent for curbs on freedom of speech during civil unrest.

The enormity of public misapprehension in this week's debate on civil liberties can be summed up in one angry text, sent to a radio debate on Tuesday. The listener commented that those who riot should expect to forfeit their human rights. The whole point of human rights is they are non-negotiable. Freedom of speech and equality before the law aren't there just to be indulged when everything is quiet, and tossed aside as soon as teenagers start ransacking Evans Cycles. It is at moments of national crisis that human rights are most important, because it is at such moments that these rights tend to be called into question, although rarely with such bombast as by the British politicians and commentators who openly called for the Human Rights Act to be rescinded in the wake of last week's riots.

It is barely six months since David Cameron was condemning Hosni Mubarak for human rights abuses against Egyptian protesters that included shutting down the internet. This week, the Prime Minister was congratulated by China for proposing eerily similar measures in last Thursday's emergency House of Commons debate. "The US and Britain used to criticise developing countries for curbing freedom of speech," commented Chinese state media website Global Times. "Britain's new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the future management of the internet."

When China approves of your digital rights strategy, you know you're heading in a dangerous direction. The idea of the kill-switch – the notion that services like Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook could be shut down at whim by the government – is the most dramatic proposal, but the least feasible. Even in Egypt, the cost of suspending communications meant it took days for Mubarak to shut down the internet, and that did not prevent citizens from gathering in Tahrir Square, assisted by anti-censorship activists and hackers from around the world. Crackdowns on the free distribution of information online tend to draw out groups like Anonymous and LulzSec, who have proven adept at humiliating any service provider who dares to collude with governments against net neutrality. Only hours after Research In Motion offered to assist the authorities in tracking down looters who may have used its BlackBerry Messenger service, hackers broke into the company's official UK blog and threatened to reveal employee data.

Governments anxious about the implications of free information transfer for social control are cracking down hard on hackers, with several alleged members of LulzSec facing serious charges in Britain this month. For now though, it seems next to impossible to prevent people from using social media entirely. Far more insidious, and effective, is the suggestion that anyone who uses the network to express sentiments or organise meetings of which the state does not approve, will face jail.

This is precisely the message sent when two young men of previous good character are sent to prison for failing to organise a riot on Facebook. If "inciting disorder" gets you four years even when no one shows up, what else can we no longer say online? Are we still allowed to post angry tweets about overthrowing the Government while watching ministers equivocate on Newsnight? Are we still allowed to organise protests, if there's a chance they might turn rowdy? David Cameron announced last week that he was considering measures "to stop people from communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality." Given that rights withdrawn during times of crisis tend not to be reinstated when the smoke clears, it is hardly a great leap to imagine a world where anti-government activists are imprisoned for organising online. China, after all, is right behind us on this one.

If we believe that social networking, rather than any more profound social dysfunction, is to blame for the disorder, it follows that we must crack down on the free flow of information, and make examples of those who "abuse" it – as if freedom of speech were a privilege to be earned, rather than a right to be defended. But social media did not cause these riots, any more than the telephone caused the Brixton riots. Social media, like all communications tools, are morally neutral. Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger made it easier for chancers to coordinate the frightening waves of theft and violence, but they also made it easier for people to warn each other about what was going on in local areas, to support one another and to repair the damage.

If we are to repair the fracturing of civil society, we cannot allow ourselves to be manipulated into blunting the best tool we have for expanding knowledge and bringing human beings together. In this age of instant communication, lots of stupid, ill-considered things get written in the heat of the moment. Laws and precedents should not be among them.

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