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The American Angle on David Cameron's Social Media Censorship Moment

BY Nick Judd | Monday, August 22 2011

The "special relationship" between the United States and United Kingdom apparently went unscathed earlier this month when British Prime Minister David Cameron attacked one of the U.S. State Department's pet causes, Internet freedom.

In the wake of widespread rioting in Britain that began in Tottenham, Cameron suggested his government might prevent some people from accessing social media if they were suspected of using it to plot criminal activity. This contradicts U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's position and efforts. In speech after speech, she has promoted the cause of a universally free and open Internet, and State Department funding supports projects to build tech tools that could leapfrog over roadblocks to or censhorship of Internet access, be it on a mobile phone or from a desktop computer.

National Journal's Sara Jerome took notice of this, and finds in a piece on Nextgov that some Internet activists say Clinton's laconic approach was the right one to take.

Here's former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin, also a onetime Google executive and now the head of a national nonprofit to support open-source projects in government:

"In the heat of the immediate aftermath of a massive social catastrophe, politicians say things that maybe later, when they think about it, they aren't going to pursue," said McLaughlin, a vocal proponent of Internet freedom. "You give your friends a little bit of breathing space. A wait-and-see approach is appropriate, but I don't think you cut them any slack in the long term."

Jerome also quotes Project on Global Internet Freedom director Cynthia Wong as saying that Clinton's move, or lack thereof, was okay given the political capital the secretary of state has already accrued with Internet freedom activists.

Cameron's statement drew wide derision from the Internet freedom community. In a post around the time of Cameron's statement, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Eva Galperin wrote that the PM was "practically tripping over himself in his eagerness to sacrifice liberty for security."

Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that it "took a very dim view" of Cameron's suggestion.

Before Cameron's remarks, MobileActive co-founder Katrin Verclas told me that attempts to censor individual services — a proposition floated by another member of Parliament — would be "silly." Ban suspected criminals from one service, after all, and they'll find a way to move to another.

In a subsequent speech on what 10 Downing Street was calling the "fightback" against rioting, Cameron was again expected to reference expanded powers for police, but his prepared remarks made no mention of social media.

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