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Repressing the Internet, Western-Style
Wall Street Journal
August 15, 2011
Did the youthful rioters who roamed the streets of London, Manchester and other British cities expect to see their photos scrutinized by angry Internet users, keen to identify the miscreants? In the immediate aftermath of the riots, many cyber-vigilantes turned to Facebook, Flickr and other social networking sites to study pictures of the violence. Some computer-savvy members even volunteered to automate the process by using software to compare rioters’ faces with faces pictured elsewhere on the Internet.
The rioting youths were not exactly Luddites either. They used BlackBerrys to send their messages, avoiding more visible platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It’s telling that they looted many stores selling fancy electronics. The path is short, it would seem, from “digital natives” to “digital restives.”
Technology has empowered all sides in this skirmish: the rioters, the vigilantes, the government and even the ordinary citizens eager to help. But it has empowered all of them to different degrees. As the British police, armed with the latest facial-recognition technology, go through the footage captured by their numerous closed-circuit TV cameras and study chat transcripts and geolocation data, they are likely to identify many of the culprits.
Authoritarian states are monitoring these developments closely. Chinese state media, for one, blamed the riots on a lack of Chinese-style controls over social media. Such regimes are eager to see what kind of precedents will be set by Western officials as they wrestle with these evolving technologies. They hope for at least partial vindication of their own repressive policies.
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