What's the difference between BART and the Chinese government?
What's the difference between Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Mubarak regime in Egypt? That's an irresponsible question. They are not at all alike. Mubarak was a brutal dictator; BART is a public agency under an elected government. I'll try again: What should the difference be between BART and Mubarak?
Last week, BART blocked mobile phone service in its stations to keep would-be protesters, planning to demonstrate against the most recent shooting by transit police, from communicating with one another. In January, Mubarak's government blocked mobile phone service to keep anti-government protesters from communicating with one another.
But the Egyptian regime was against the protesters because the Egyptian regime was evil and the protesters were good. The San Francisco protesters were dangerous. BART cut off communications, according to a statement from the agency, because protests in the stations "could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions."
The same day when BART followed its protective impulses, British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the House of Commons about the London riots (which also followed a shooting by police). The rampaging criminals, Cameron explained, were using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate their activities:
Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.
And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.
So we are working with the police, the intelligence services, and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder, and criminality.
And who would support rioters' freedom to riot? Not the editorialists of China's state-run Global Times, who praised Cameron for at least floating the idea of blocking communications, as an acknowledgment from a Western leader that "democracy and freedom of speech should have their pragmatic connotations and denotations":
Media in the US and Britain used to criticize developing countries for curbing freedom of speech. Britain's new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the future management of the Internet.
As for China, advocates of an unlimited development of the Internet should think twice about their original ideas.
On the Internet, there is no lack of posts and articles that incite public violence. They will cause tremendous damage once they are tweeted without control. At that time, all governments will have no other choice but to close down these websites and arrest those agitators.
This is a familiar, cynical maneuver by the Chinese, trapping the West in a moment of apparent hypocrisy. But what if the Chinese aren't being cynical? From China's point of view, London has a practical problem. The city is scheduled to host the 2012 Olympics, one year from now, and mobs have been burning and looting there. How can the world trust Britain to put on a safe event?
Four years ago, there was much discussion of whether Beijing was fit to host the 2008 Games. Was Beijing's human rights record up to international standards? Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but at least there weren't any riots in the host city. Only in distant territories, and those were dealt with—through communications interference and military interference.
And so, aside from a stray stabbing and some minor, well-contained fuss from the Free Tibet crowd, Beijing kept its Olympics safe and secure. Safer than Atlanta in 1996, certainly, with its domestic-terrorist bombing. It helped that the Chinese capital was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and image-analysis technology, much of it supplied by American companies. That technology stayed on after the games, recognizing faces and tracking suspicious patterns of public gathering.
Technology is value-neutral. The values are supposed to come from the people operating it. And the security of the state, as a goal, is as amoral as the machinery behind it.
Here's David Cameron, speaking about using surveillance footage to track down London rioters: "No phony human-rights concerns about publishing photographs will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice."
Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.