UK mulls social media gag

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British prime minister David Cameron has told Parliament that social networks and Research In Motion (RIM) should take more control over the content posted on their networks.

Speaking on Thursday, he added that the British government would look into banning people from major social networks if they were suspected of inciting violence.

Cameron was backed by some members of the opposition. The Guardian reports that shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis said: “Free speech is central to our democracy, but so is public safety and security.
“We support the government’s decision to undertake a review of whether measures are necessary to prevent the abuse of social media by those who organise and participate in criminal activities.”

Facebook has stated it has already responded by removing numerous “credible threats of violence” associated with the riots, while Twitter has said it has no intention of removing posts or blocking users.

The British home secretary, Theresa May, is expected to meet with Facebook, Twitter and RIM within the next few weeks.

Facebook issued a statement, saying: “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.
“We have been pleased to see the very positive uses millions of people have been making of our service to let friends and family know they are safe and to strengthen their communities.”

Earlier this week, Scotland Yard issued a warning saying that anyone using Twitter to incite violence would “not go unpunished”. Member of Parliament for Tottenham David Lammy also appealed for RIM to suspend its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service.

It is widely understood that the majority of planning and orchestrating of the riots was carried out via the somewhat more covert means of BBM.

Speaking specifically of the role of social media, Cameron said: “Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. 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.”

Cameron stated: “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 Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

The PM added that he has asked the British police if they require any “new powers” to stop the violence, including the ability to shut down social networks and communication services if they believe that the services are being used to incite “unrest”. Cameron has also asked broadcasters to hand over any unused footage of the rioters and looters to the police.
“Police were facing a new circumstance where rioters were using the BlackBerry Messenger service, a closed network, to organise riots. We’ve got to examine that and work out how to get ahead of them,” said Cameron.

RIM has said “we have engaged the authorities to assist in any way we can”, and it is speculated that RIM may be asked to hand over private information of communication between rioters to the UK authorities.

RIM MD of global sales and regional marketing Patrick Spence released an official statement, saying: “As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials.
“Similar to other technology providers in the UK, we comply with The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces.”

The details as to how the British government may go about identifying those who are “plotting” via social networks remain unclear, but Cameron’s statements have raised concerns about protecting freedom of expression.

According to reports, British police have already been arresting people on the basis of their posts on Twitter and Facebook.

Local new-media lawyer Paul Jacobson says Cameron’s proposed clampdown on social networks is a convenient scapegoat and he is “not dealing with the core issues”.
“While social networks may well have helped, people will use whatever means they can in such situations.
“He’s also ignoring the benefits of social media that emerged in the chaos. Where citizens were using the platforms to organise themselves and organise clean-up efforts.
“It’s not the right approach,” says Jacobson. “Practically it won’t work because people will work around any clampdowns. There’s also definitely an issue of freedom of expression.”

Jacobson adds: “It’s easy to say networks should be shut down when being used by rioters to cause harm, but what about those who protest for legitimate causes?”

Twitter has made a statement to the press that it has “no intention” of blocking user accounts or removing posts, and has referred back to a statement it made during the Egyptian uprisings, in which it played a notable role.

In a blog posted on the Twitter Web site earlier this year, titled “The tweets must flow”, it said: “Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential.”

At the time, the Egyptian government shut down access to social networks, mobile networks and ultimately access to the Internet.

The Twitter blog post goes on to say: “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.
“At Twitter, we have identified our own responsibilities and limits. There are tweets that we do remove, such as illegal tweets and spam. However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule – we strive not to remove tweets on the basis of their content.”

Police in Manchester are also raising eyebrows as they have begun tweeting the names, addresses and birth dates of suspected looters who they have arrested. They are also using Twitter to direct followers to their Flikr page, in the hope that they may assist them in identifying suspected looters.

Responding to criticism, the @GMPolice responded by tweeting: “Lot of debate about publishing details – courts very clear, justice should be done publicly.”