Government Consults Social Media Chiefs On Riots

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Representatives from Facebook, Twitter and RIM will meet Theresa May on Thursday to discuss the recent riots

The British government has summoned the bosses of Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) to a meeting with home secretary Theresa May, to discuss ways to prevent social media from being used to coordinate criminal activity.

Kieth Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, reportedly wrote to the major social networks earlier this month, inviting them to review their responsibilities following the riots that plagued London and other UK cities in August. RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger service was singled out for particular criticism, having been used extensively by rioters to communicate and collaborate their activities across the country.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media,” said prime minister David Cameron in a statement to the House of Commons on 11 August. “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.

“So 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.”

Cracking down on social activity

Twitter confirmed yesterday that it would be attending the meeting, which will take place on Thursday 25 August. Facebook and RIM have already confirmed their attendance.

“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,” the company said in a statement last week.

Social networks can be forced to hand over users’ personal details if police are able to show that they relate to criminal behaviour – as in the case of the US federal government’s investigation into WikiLeaks earlier this year. Scotland Yard is already working to track down those people who posted “really inflammatory and inaccurate” messages on social media, according to the BBC.

Sign of an oppressive regime?

The government’s suggestion that it should have the power to block access to social networks at times of civil unrest has prompted a fierce debate, with many pointing to the recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as examples of oppressive regimes turning off communications networks to prevent opposition forces from using them to coordinate action.

In the case of Egypt, the government shut off access to Twitter after a violent protest against President Mubarak broke out in January. Cairo-based journalist Randa Eltahawy told eWEEK Europe that Twitter has become “a live platform” for political activists in Egypt to communicate, allowing them to “share information on where to meet and what to do”.

RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger service has also been criticised by governments in India, the United Arab Emirates and even the United States in recent months for being too secure – using a level of encryption that prevents the security services from monitoring users. However, many feel the authorities in some of these countries are using the anti-terrorism argument as an excuse to monitor day-to-day communications, helping them to enforce strict local laws.

In an interview with eWEEK Europe in March, freedom activist Richard Stallman – who is vehemently opposed to Facebook for its “abuse of personal information” – said he could agree with victims of tyranny using it. However, he qualified this by saying in no uncertain terms that he believes the UK government is not tyrannical enough to justify our own use of Facebook.

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