Tighten the Web on Flash Mobs

We sometimes need to give up a bit of freedom for security, including restricting social networking sites that facilitate violence and general mayhem.  When online or cell phone communications such as tweets and instant messages point to imminent lawlessness, authorities must intervene before flash crowds degenerate into flash mobs.

Social media-incited disorder has erupted spectacularly across Britain, and flash mobs that loot and plunder are rampant in the U.S.  In response, authorities on both sides of the pond have sought restrictions upon social media, reigniting the perennial debate about the appropriate balance between security and freedom in a stable democracy.

ACLU lawyers and libertarians like to invoke the wisdom of our founders to ensure the balance is skewed toward freedom.  A favorite quote comes from Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," but those were the words of a revolutionary instigator in a different milieu.

Franklin's version of unfettered liberty helped foment a great revolution, but may not be conducive for the weak or unwitting minding their business on the streets of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco, or anywhere else flash mobs have recently run amok.  Do we really want the freedom to have our shops looted as Internet-savvy delinquents tweet the next hapless target?  If not, then British Prime Minister David Cameron's call to "stop people communicating via these websites...when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality" seems entirely prudent.

Just as the essence of capitalism thrives because we have restrained some of its excesses in the search for profit, democracy flourishes with limited restrictions on individual freedoms.  Even the types of restrictions imposed by the Bay Area Rapid Transit District in temporarily shutting down Internet access on San Francisco's subway system as protesters gathered to repeatedly wreak havoc.

Our founding documents and principles are national treasures, bequeathed to us by enlightened philosophers like John Locke and brave practitioners who gave their "John Hancock."  They are inextricably tied to our roots and will remain our birthright even if we have to tinker with them a bit to counter the onslaught of social media-generated upheaval.  Our freedoms are too embedded for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's temporary curfew of would-be flash robbers to be a slippery slope to despotism. 

Whatever our origins or status and wherever we reside in our 50 disparate states, our heritage of classical liberalism inspires all Americans.  Circumspect censorship of online activity during times of crisis may modestly sway the balance toward security from liberty, but it's nothing that can't be recalibrated once the police catch up with the technology of real-time web.

Even as our Constitution has evolved, it has strengthened its grip on the ties that unite us.  Many civil rights lawyers, however, have no such flexibility, believing that it demands absolute and universal deference -- a kind of Patrick Henry "Give me Liberty or give me Death" approach.  His audacity in the cauldron of political revolution is inspirational, but such a strident position may not serve us so well under the nuances of our digital revolution 235 years later, where tweeting is no longer the sole province of garrulous budgies.

The ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation seem ensconced in an abstract world of theoretical abuses and slippery slope arguments; their members' hearts might be in the right place, but their minds are trapped in some Orwellian nightmare.  Their inflexibility would prevent law enforcement from creating temporary detours on the digital networks to foil dastardly plots to plunder and pillage.

Let us remember what John Locke, one of Thomas Jefferson's philosophical mentors, said in his watershed "A Treatise Concerning Civil Government."  This from the father of classical liberalism:

The great and chief end therefore, of Mens [sic] uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.

Our democracy is mature enough to withstand temporary government intrusion into social media sites that host clear and present dangers to our property and well-being.  We have survived far greater intrusions into our freedom as historical contingencies -- usually wars -- required.  We didn't sink into the abyss of government despotism; indeed, by temporarily sacrificing a little liberty we obtained both liberty and safety.

Admittedly, we should be circumspect with our censorship and surveillance of online activity.  Even as antisocial zealots use social media to foment anarchy, let's also remember that web-based and mobile technologies channel good deeds, including organizing legitimate rallies for political reforms in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.  Even in England, social media sites elicited the fabulous resolve and traditional stiff upper lip response as proud citizens fought back with brooms and mops to tidy up and reclaim their communities.

Perhaps nobody overshadows Thomas Jefferson in his commitment to liberty.  Indeed, the author of one of the most influential documents in the history of the English language also said this when about to be burdened with the practicality of actual governance in 1801: "A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another ... This is the sum of good government." I don't think I've ever heard a civil rights lawyer quote that one.

We should be very careful with our oversight of online activity, but let's not take an absolutist position that favors all liberty at the expense of security.  Wise and frugal governance may require occasional roadblocks in the wild and wooly Internet so that tyrannical mobs can't ambush us and jeopardize our life or pursuit of happiness.

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