Many people using the London Underground today will likely have noticed that the usual Virgin Media-run Wi-Fi service is not working. Some might even have been mildly inconvenienced by not being able to access the internet on the platform like normal.
The network is down not thanks to some technical snafu, but because of the ongoing protests in London being conducted by Extinction Rebellion – a group of climate change activists who believe that direct action and non-violent acts of civil disobedience are now morally necessary in order to force governments to take action.
At the time of writing, the group was targeting London’s public transport network, and activists have glued themselves to Docklands Light Railway (DLR) rolling stock at Canary Wharf.
Because of this, the British Transport Police (BTP) took the decision to instruct Transport for London (TfL) and Virgin Media to turn off the Wi-Fi service in an attempt to disrupt the climate change protests by making it harder for activists to communicate and organise.
In the interests of safety?
While the BTP has attempted to portray the shutdown as being undertaken in the “interests of safety and to prevent and deter serious disruption” the underlying truth of the matter is that its actions curtail freedom to access the internet, freedom to express oneself using the internet, and freedom to organise using the internet.
Whether or not you agree with the aims of Extinction Rebellion – and causing disruption to environmentally-friendly mass transit systems is arguably not a positive step – the BTP has overreached itself.
It is therefore hard to escape the logical conclusion that the UK authorities are acting in a manner more befitting of an authoritarian regime.
Remember that Egypt famously cut off its internet connections in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring protests. More recently the likes of Venezuela and Sudan have taken similar steps at times of national crisis, restricting the ability of their citizens to communicate freely. In other countries like China, the government prevents all access to western social media platforms (with the exception of from within a few luxury hotels), and virtually all social media activity is directed through government-approved and monitored platforms such as the nearly-ubiquitous WeChat.
A dangerous precedent
Obviously the shutdown of a single wireless network in limited locations does not amount to a concerted attempt to stifle freedom of expression for everybody in the UK, and it would be hyperbolic to suggest it does – otherwise we could not post this article.
However, in a time of increased political turmoil and social discord it sets an extremely dangerous precedent for a country that prides itself on fundamental freedoms to allow law enforcement agencies to act in this manner. The optics are, quite frankly, terrible.
All over the world, freedom of access to and expression on the internet is under growing threat. Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net reported an eighth consecutive year of global internet freedom declines. It said 17 governments around the world approved or proposed laws restricting online media in the name of fighting fake news and online manipulation, and 18 governments increased surveillance, often eschewing independent oversight and weakening encryption in the process.
Reporters Without Borders already lists the British government as an enemy of the internet alongside some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, such as Belarus, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Coming on the same day as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirmed that the delayed and, to all intents and purposes, largely unenforceable UK porn block will come into effect on 15 July 2019 in an email that was openly copied to every technology journalist in the country (a GDPR breach), this will make many who argue for freedom of access and expression online very nervous indeed.
The British government is walking a dangerous path when it comes to online freedoms, and we all have a responsibility to challenge it, or risk our liberties being slowly but surely eroded.