Rights Groups Oppose Kneejerk Facebook Block

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Human rights organisations are opposing a suggested block on social networks during times of civil unrest

Human rights groups have warned today 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 home secretary Theresa May, ten signatories – including representatives from Amnesty UK, Liberty, Privacy International and the Open Rights Group – warned that restricting or monitoring people’s communications networks are matters that require “extreme care and open, detailed deliberation”.

“We are very concerned that new measures, made in good faith but in a heated political environment, will overextend powers in ways that would be susceptible to abuse, restrict legitimate, free communication and expression and undermine people’s privacy,” the letter reads. “This is especially so if proposals involve unaccountable voluntary arrangements between law enforcement and communications providers.”

The signatories have also requested a meeting with Theresa May, to help the government review the existing legal regime and ensure that it appropriately fits new technologies. They emphasise the need for complete transparency, in order to ensure rights such as freedom of expression and privacy are upheld.

Government to meet social media chiefs

The news comes as the home secretary prepares to meet with representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, to discuss whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services during times of civil unrest.

The suggestion was made by prime minister David Cameron in a statement to the House of Commons on 11 August, after riot action had broken out in London and around the UK. Some of the criminal activity was coordinated using social media and RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger service.

“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 Cameron. “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.”

Executives of the three companies are expected to use the meeting today to lay out their opposition to blanket monitoring of communications and police powers to restrict access to individuals. Sources told the Telegraph it was “hoped and expected” that May (pictured) would not press for new measures to restrict social networks, but would focus instead on how the authorities can use social media better during emergencies.

“Blocking people’s communications could do more harm than good,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. “People may be put in danger and efforts to stop rioting and damage might well be disrupted. Powers targeting individuals could easily lead to abuse. Theresa May needs to meet with rights groups and have a frank discussion about where these ideas may be leading us.”

Twitter used to pre-empt attacks

Social networks proved to be an invaluable tool for police during the riots. The Metropolitan Police managed to pre-empt attacks on Westfield shopping centres, 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.

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