Government Backs Down On Social Media Blackout

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The government has U-turned on a proposed policy to black-out social networks during riots

The UK government has backed down on plans to restrict access to social networks during times of civil unrest. The announcement follows a meeting yesterday between Home Secretary Theresa May and representatives from Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM).

A Home Office spokesman said “the government did not seek any additional powers to close down social-media networks” at the meeting. Instead, the discussions focused on “how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour”.

The meeting – described as “constructive” – had been called in the wake of the riots that swept through London and other UK cities in August. Much of the action was coordinated using RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger service, which encrypts messages to ensure their privacy, as well as social networks Twitter and Facebook.

Police and MPs claim these networks were also used by rioters and looters to incite violence.

No support for Chinese-style black-out

“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,” said Prime Minister David Cameron in a statement to the House of Commons on 11 August.

“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.”

However, the government said yesterday that it did not intend to follow through on a policy put forward “in the heat of the moment”. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg added that ministers were not going to support “a Chinese or Iran-style black-out of social media”.

The news will be welcomed by human rights groups, which warned yesterday that hasty measures by the government to limit access to social networks and communications in the wake of UK riots could lead to abuse.

In an open letter to Theresa May, ten signatories – including representatives from Amnesty UK, Liberty, Privacy International and the Open Rights Group – said that restricting or monitoring people’s communications networks are matters that require “extreme care and open, detailed deliberation”.

Twitter: help or hindrance?

Social networks did in fact prove to be a valuable tool for police during the riots. The Metropolitan Police managed to pre-empt attacks on the Westfield London shopping centre, Oxford Street and the Olympic site by monitoring discussions on Twitter and Facebook. The sites have also since been used to track down and arrest those who incited violence.

An analysis by the Guardian of 2.5 million tweets over the days of the riots suggests that Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting, rather than to organise them. The micro-blogging site was also used to coordinate community clean up efforts in the aftermath of the riots.

However, a survey of 2,000 people by marketing agency MBA, found that 50 percent would be in favour of a temporary shut down, despite more than a third saying they used social media as the primary news source during the riots.

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