UK riots and the Internet: What would Hayek do?

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has declared “everything necessary will be done to restore order” in Britain’s riot-racked cities. With respect to the right honorable gentleman, what distinguishes free from unfree societies is not order, but ordered liberty. As the great Tory philosopher Edmund Burke taught, reconciling liberty and order is the fine art of democratic statecraft. Tweaking that balance as technology evolves requires the most careful and judicious deliberation. Only where cooler heads prevail can ordered liberty thrive.

Cameron’s government has hesitated to escalate physical force with rubber bullets and water cannons, lest they lend moral sanction to the brutal tactics used by China and in the Middle East to suppress dissent. Yet however noble his intentions, Cameron could do more to undermine ordered liberty with “bloodless” measures targeting social media services like Twitter and Facebook, and improperly using photo identification.

Cameron, who championed Internet-driven revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, told Parliament that the “free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill.” His vague response: “We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry whether it will be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services.”

So far, the only clear call for shutting down social media outright came from a Labour MP, not Cameron’s Tories. David Lammy, who represents the London neighborhood where rioting began, has demanded the suspension of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service for “helping rioters outfox Police.” Such a response befits Beijing, not Britain, the birthplace of ordered liberty.

Free societies can and should silence those who incite acts of violence — but not by shutting down speech platforms for all users. Even America’s speech-protective First Amendment allows punishment of speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” That standard protects legitimate expression without preventing prosecution of those individuals stoking and organizing riots. The same standard should determine when government may properly force social media systems to take down seditious posts, photos and videos.

Cameron rightly wants to ban lawless rabble-rousers from social media. For those convicted of online incitement, such a sentence would fit the crime, and could be enforced just like any other condition of probation. Indeed, making this penalty clear now could prove a powerful deterrent — especially among social media-obsessed youth, who might consider a ban of even a few years to be “social death.”

Of course, police most want to squelch incitement quickly. But the “prior restraint” of individual voices is perhaps the most dangerous tool any government could have; it demands close judicial scrutiny based on the presumption of innocence. Temporarily suspending users without meeting the “imminent incitement” standard would be the digital equivalent of detaining prisoners without trial — a violation of the sacred Anglo-American right to habeas corpus. Instead, Britain and other democracies must give law enforcement the resources to prosecute incitement quickly and ensure the courts can apply meaningful scrutiny in emergencies.