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UK anti-tech crackdown? Not bloody likely

Five sentences in UK prime minister David Cameron’s 2,700-word address on the London riots are causing an Internet meltdown.

"Cameron threatens to block rioters from social media," "UK prime minister’s anti-tech crackdown: Stupid, useless, and wrong," and inevitably, "Anonymous will act against UK web shutdowns." Those were sorts of headlines inspired by the five lines that came about halfway through his speech.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

A resident films a police officer on his mobile phone during disturbances in Hackney on August 8, 2011 in London, England.

Even a whisper of a government controlling, monitoring or shutting down any form of communication and speech always meets with outrage — and recent events in Egypt and elsewhere remind us why.

Within context, Cameron’s vague statements about social media show no hint of an entire region’s Internet access getting shut down, as Egypt experienced in January. True, BlackBerry is cooperating with the British government to identify those who coordinated violence via BBM —but it’s not handing over full access as was demanded by Saudi Arabia and UAE. And as to the Internet outrage over those five sentences, there is no way UK citizens would stand for anything close to China’s iron-fisted Internet control. These are a people not afraid to riot.

"I'm not too worried," Graham Linehan told Technolog over Twitter. "I'm hoping it's just a harmless exercise in looking-like-you're-doing-something." 

As creator of the UK-famous show "The IT Crowd" (which enjoys cult status in the U.S.), Linehan is also a renowned tech and social media smarty pants. As such, he's one guy in England who has a pretty good perspective on this subject. With more than 122,000 followers on a Twitter account he seemingly helms 24/7, Linehan is currently peppering his nonstop Twitter stream about tech, comedy and other geek fetishes with tweets and retweets about the riots. You know, just like everyone else in the Western world.

Linehan says he doesn’t fear an "anti-tech crackdown" in the UK, "because I think this Gov are actually proving to be quite good on digital rights," he tweeted Technolog.

The UK government’s ongoing reform in digital policy and rights focuses strongly on free exchange of intellectual property and Internet copyright law to benefit innovation and business. Research into this growth was commissioned by the prime minister himself. Notably, this is a different issue from a social media crackdown, but let's review Cameron’s five incendiary sentences in his House of Commons speech:

Mr. Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. 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.

Cameron went on to say that police officers are now authorized to remove face coverings with reasonable suspicion — many of the vandals and looters caught on the government-run closed circuit TV are wearing hoodies pulled over their heads and scarves up to their eyes. He also spent considerable time talking about victim support. Consider the UK olds, freaking out over this new-fangled social media inspiring roving bands of thugs. Won't somebody please think of the olds?! Cameron is essentially saying, "We'll get those kids off your lawn!"

Cameron and UK authorities no doubt understand this sentiment tweeted by Cambridge, Mass. blogger "Debcha":

Certainly, the benefits of social media won't be lost on the UK government, nor UK police officers who are using social media to calm Londoners and quell troubles. For example, this tweet from Eastbourne Police:

"The riots seem to have woken them up to the possibilities of social media in connecting with the public," Linehan tweeted Technolog.

The Greater Manchester Police, for their part, have understood the power of social media for some time. They used it to great success last year to bring attention to impending budget cuts by tweeting every 999 call (the UK version of 911) the department received in a 24-hour period.

"There’s been a lot of concerns about social media in the current situation; on the other hand it is a very valuable tool in getting information out there," Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Peter Fahy told Sky News, addressing Cameron’s statements and the subsequent outrage.

"It’s not just about social media. We’ve seen people on mobile phones, texting and those sorts of things. So it is a wider issue, and I think clearly there has to be a balance here."

The Greater Manchester Police are among those charged with getting those kids off the lawn, and social media is a tool that helps them do it.

 More on social media and the London riots:

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Tell her to get a real job on Twitter and/or FacebookAlso, Google+.