Many governments around the world have criminal statutes preventing “unlawful assembly” crimes.  Generally speaking, an unlawful assembly refers to a gathering of individuals who come together in order to commit an unlawful act or to behave in a violent, boisterous or tumultuous manner.  While nations around the world differ in their tolerance of public gatherings, in the Western world, peaceful assemblies of the people are well-accepted and commonplace.

The concept of lawful assembly, or freedom of assembly, is well-enshrined in a number of human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 20, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Article 21 and the European Convention on Human RightsArticle 11. Moreover, the right to peaceably assemble is a founding principal of national law in democratic nations around the world, including in the US under the  First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  The same is true under many other national laws, including France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland and Turkey, to name a few.

That the people have a right to gather and assemble peaceably seems to be a well-agreed upon fact under both international and domestic law.  That said, of course there are limits to all rights and governments certainly have a responsibility to protect public safety.  When a simple public gathering devolves into public disorder or even a full-blown riot, governments must respond, usually in the form of specially-trained and equipped riot police, who must attempt to restore peace and safety.

All of this was relatively easy to understand in the good old pre-Internet days.  Riots, demonstrations and public gatherings were all things that happened in “real space.”  There was no virtual world equivalent of a public gathering and thus the possibility of an unlawful assembly in cyberspace could not exist.  Now, however, as scientific knowledge has evolved to include a number of new technologies, such as social networking, location-based services and virtual reality, things are not quite so clear.

Now it appears for the first time that an unlawful assembly has been declared against a purely virtual gathering.  The decision has been taken by the Chinese government against the Foursquare location-based social networking service.

Though the Chinese government has for 21 years vigorously blocked any attempts by protesters to gather in remembrance of the June 4th, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, these efforts were previously directed at purely physical gatherings in the square.  Til this day, Tiananmen remains a deeply political and sensitive subject in the People’s Republic of China and any discussions of the same are strictly censored by the government.

In response to the Chinese government’s ban on physical gatherings in Tienanmen Square during the anniversary date of the incident, some clever protesters have now turned to new technologies to make their presence known nonetheless.  Specifically, protesters virtually “checked-in” to Tienanmen Square via the location-based social networking program known as Foursquare.  Foursquare allows users “check-in” at venues using a mobile website, text messaging or a device-specific application.  Once at a particular site, users are then awarded points and sometimes “badges.”

In the run-up to the 2010 anniversary of Tienanmen, there was a dramatic increase of the number of users ‘cheeking-in’ to the central Beijing square–a fact which has garnered the attention of the Chinese government.  As such, Foursquare apparently has been blocked throughout all of the People’s Republic of China.

The aforementioned development is interesting on a number of levels.  Firstly, when the Foursquare service was created by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai, they undoubtedly never could have anticipated its use as part of a political or social protest.  Nor could they ever likely have anticipated its blockage by censors as an unsanctioned form of location-based virtual protest.

Secondly, the blockage of Foursquare’s site in China says something dramatic about virtual locations: notably, that they matter.  While Foursquare was mostly perceived as a game by many up until this point, the service just entered the “big leagues” based upon its use by activists attempting to commemorate the Tienanmen incident.  We see more clearly now that not only does an individual’s physical location matter, but so too does the projected location on one’s virtual self.

While location-based services are in their infancy today, they will undoubtedly grow rapidly in the very near future, particularly given trends in GPS, mobile phone geo-location and RFID tagging.  Moreover, as computing power increases, so too will the verisimilitude of virtual reality.  Better computing, better graphics and better location awareness means that increasingly avatars and other virtual beings will “gather” in ways previously unimagined.  Not only will virtual protests increase in number, but so too will other virtual crimes with a location-based component such as virtual riots, “avatar trespass” and “avatar stalking.”  Court restraining orders prohibiting one individual from coming within 100 meters of another, may someday apply to the declared or recorded location of one’s avatar as well.   In MMORPG’s and virtual worlds, such as Second Life, numerous incidents of virtual riot have already occurred and several political protests have turned violent, albeit it virtually violent.

The China case below clearly demonstrates that virtual presence matters.  In the future, virtual locations will undoubtedly become even more  important.  As such, so too will the concomitant legal, political and criminal consequences associated with life in virtual spaces.

Foursquare Blocked in China

by Claudine Beaumont, Technology Editor
The Telegraph

June 4, 2010

According to some sources, the Chinese authorities appear to have blocked access to the Foursquare service in mainland China. The reasons for the censorship of the geolocation service remain unclear, but some have speculated that it could be linked to the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese government is notorious for stifling discussion about the event, and already blocks internet searches that contain those key terms.

It appears that some Foursquare users have been “checking in” to Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity with Chinese dissidents, and to commemorate those who died in the massacre. The current “mayor” of Tiananmen Square is a Foursquare user called Chommy.

According to Techblog86, a website that covers technology news in China, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people using the Foursquare service to ‘visit’ Tiananmen Square. The blog has a screenshot of a user’s Foursquare app on the iPhone, which shows hundreds of people checking in at the site of the massacre.