UK government considers social media block to prevent riots
Civil liberties, public safety policy at odds after last week's carnage
TechLife | 15 Aug 2011 :
Scrambling to deter future on a par with last week's events in London, Manchester and Liverpool, the UK government is considering shutting down social networks such as Twitter and Facebook during civil disturbances, but the heavy-handed proposal is already drawing criticism.
The use of social networks and services such as the BlackBerry Messenger by some rioters to co-ordinate, has lead Prime Minister David Cameron to propose "whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence."
The approach is similar to measures taken by governments in Egypt and Tunisia, both of which sought to restrict Internet access and services to quell anti-government demonstrations.
"Nobody can believe the government is serious," said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, a nonprofit technology watchdog organization. "Clearly Twitter and BlackBerry and other tools have been used for good purposes as well as ill."
The popularity of Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry devices with UK youths is centered around Messenger, an encrypted chat program that allows users to send mass messages at no charge. It has been blamed for enabling youths to quickly mass in key neighborhoods in London and other UK cities hit with looting and arson earlier this week.
At least 11 people have been detained or charged with trying to incite violence on Facebook, according to the BBC. Some of those who allegedly participated in the riots bragged on Twitter about their looting.
The UK's Home Secretary Theresa May said she intends to meet with Facebook, Twitter and RIM officials soon to discuss how the companies can work with police, according to a Home Office spokeswoman on Friday.
The spokeswoman said the Home Office is not suggesting to shut down social media outlets as it would not be "realistic."
"There are a large number of people who are not rioters out there, and it would have huge consequences on business as a whole," she said.
But while the Home Office appeared to slightly retreat from Cameron's statements, some within the Conservative party support a harsher approach.
Louise Mensch, a Conservative Member of Parliament, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that "we'd all survive if Twitter shut down for a short while during major riots.
"Social media isn't any more important than a train station, a road or a bus service," she tweeted. "We don't worry about police temporarily closing those."
RIM said on Friday that it would consult with the government and will comply with U.K. privacy laws. Facebook said it has taken steps in recent days to remove "credible threats" of violence. The social networking site also claimed that because people are required to use their real name, police were able to get people into court more quickly.
"We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK at this challenging time," according to a statement.
IDG News Service