Government backs away from social media restrictions

By Andrew Charlesworth
26 Aug 2011 View Comments

After meeting representatives of social networking companies yesterday, the UK government appears to have backed away from throttling access to social networks in times of civil unrest.

However, a brief statement from the Home Office shows the government continues to pursue the idea that in future law enforcement agencies can "crack down on the networks being used for criminal activities".

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The meeting "follows evidence that social networking sites and messaging services were used to co-ordinate criminality during the English riots earlier this month," says the statement.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots that peppered Britain earlier in August, Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May, both from the Conservative side of the coalition government, indicated that they were of a mind to block access to social media tools, at least partially, during unrest.

Cameron told the Commons his government would examine "whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence".

That led a coalition of civil rights and freedom of speech advocates – including Amnesty International – to write an open letter to the government urging it not to impose draconian measures.

But attendees at yesterday's meeting – which included May, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, heads of the Association of Chief Police Officers and representatives from Facebook, Twitter and RIM – reported that May began the meeting with a reassurance that they were not there to discuss restricting access to the internet.

Social media tools came under the spotlight after the three-day looting spree. Two men were given four-year sentences for unsuccessfully inciting violence on Facebook, and commentators blamed RIM's BlackBerry Messenger service for providing the gangster's communication tool of choice.

The Metropolitan Police revealed they had considered switching off networks during the troubles, but realised they did not have the legal powers to do so.

However, Facebook and Twitter were quick to point out that their services were also used to warn innocent people of impending trouble and to co-ordinate clean-up squads after the looting.

An analysis of riot-related Tweets by The Guardian newspaper also showed that the majority were written by citizens reacting to the riots, not gang members organising them.

The police forces of Greater Manchester and Devon and Cornwall also backed this stance, saying that social networks had played an overwhelmingly positive role in dispelling rumours and reassuring residents during the riots.

One North London resident said during the riots she followed two Tweeters positioned at vantage points on the Holloway Road who were issuing regular updates of any signs of trouble.

"I felt like people were watching out for me, for the community," she told Computing.

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