The intersection of social media with social unrest is a massive topic these days. Twitter has been credited with playing an important role in coordinating the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, and Facebook played a role in helping police track down culprits after the Vancouver hockey riots.
But the mostly-unstated truth behind these “technologies of the people” is that they are corporate technologies, ones developed, fostered, and controlled by companies. That means power for those companies. And, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
Fast-forward to early August 2011. London is burning, and the riots have spread to several other major U.K. cities. The British government has called in a few thousand extra cops. And again, social media is playing a role. But this time the focus is specifically on Research In Motion’s (RIM’s) BlackBerry, and its use as a social networking tool. There have been various reports that the BlackBerry’s “BBM” messaging has been the tool of choice for coordination among London’s rioters. RIM is probably asking itself right now whether it’s really true that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’
Distancing itself from its role in the “BlackBerry Riots,” RIM issued (via Twitter) the following:
“We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”
The “in any way we can” part is intriguing. So, what can, and what should, RIM do? One thing it can do is to help authorities identify those inciting violence by breaking through the security of the BBM messages. But as reported here, “RIM refused to say exactly how much information it would be sharing with police.” The other, much more dramatic, thing that RIM could do would be to temporarily shut down all or part of its network. Whether that would be at all useful is open to question. It would certainly make a lot of people angry, including millions of people who are not involved in the riots, or who are relying on their BlackBerries to keep in touch with loved ones during this crisis. But I point out this option just to illustrate the breadth of options open to RIM.
The question is complicated by questions of precedence. Tech companies have come under fire for assisting governments in, for example, China, to crack down on dissidents. Of course, the U.K. government isn’t anything like China’s repressive regime. But at least some people are pointing to underlying social unrest, unemployment etc., in the U.K. as part of the reason—if not justification—for the riots. And besides, even if it’s clear that the riots are unjustifiable and that the U.K. government is a decent one, companies like RIM are global companies, engaged in a whole spectrum of social and political settings, ones that will stubbornly refuse to be categorized. Should a tech company help a repressive regime stifle peaceful protest? No. Should a tech company help a good and just government fight crime? Yes. But with regard to governments, as with regard to social unrest, there’s much more grey in the world than black and white.