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Last month the UK was gripped by images of riots taking hold of the capital and spreading across several of our major cities. While most of the UK’s law abiding citizens condemned the violence and vandalism, the riots continued for several nights causing millions of pounds of damage and extensive chaos, before ceasing as abruptly as they began. But, just as we were starting to think it was all over, the Government’s calls to stop such criminal activity being organised via social networks and Blackberry Messenger has caused unrest among freedom of speech and civil rights advocates.

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Last week the civil liberty supporters joined forces and penned an open letter to the Home Office to explain their concerns on the proposed crack down on organised criminality via social networks and in particular their scheduled meeting with Twitter, Facebook and communications providers. In the letter they reminded the Home Office that it already has powers to intercept and use communications data in legal proceedings; but to enforce a blanket ban in response to heightened political pressure would have severe consequences to fundamental civil liberties. With regards to the meeting between the Home Office, communication providers and the social networks, they ask for a more open public debate and warn against hasty agreements.

Following the meeting the Home Office stated that it “did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks.” while Nick Clegg added “we are not going to become like Iran or China. We are not going to suddenly start cutting people off”.

Whilst it’s easy to condemn the role of social media in episodes of civil unrest it’s also important to remember that in some situations it can be a significant aid. For example, whilst in the UK where we already have a well established democracy such actions were condemned, in other countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia the ability to communicate via social networks has been fundamental in bringing down regimes that have governed the countries for many years, leading to hope of a democratic future.

It’s also important to remember that social media and Blackberry Messenger were not solely to blame for the organisation of the riots. The extensive media coverage of the events also made it very easy for the rioters to establish where the police presence was greatest and also where potential pockets of violence were starting up, enflaming the problems.

Entanet has already commented on the Government’s initial thoughts about stopping organised criminality via social media. On ISPreview.co.uk we said: “Of course ‘it would be right’ to stop individuals known to be involved in ‘plotting violence, disorder and criminality’. Whether David Cameron is inferring that the intention is to achieve this through Internet filtering technology or some other physical prevention method isn’t clear.

Certainly the approach of site blocking based on the IP address of the user isn’t the answer as it potentially removes the right of other (innocent) individuals from using the site(s) and is open to abuse, circumvention and is virtually unenforceable. Whether the government and the authorities can gain the co-operation of social media service providers like Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry to block individual accounts, as has been suggested by some in the last few days, is an interesting one.

However, what’s to stop those individuals setting up new accounts? Further, if fingers are to be pointed at these social media providers, perhaps consideration should also be given to the television companies showing live coverage of incidents which simply acts to pinpoint hot spots for individuals to go to. We live in a society where communication is instant. Trying to remove it, even for good reason, isn’t practical.”

In short, our view is that blocking social networks and Blackberry Messenger services simply isn’t the answer and also isn’t practical. Further, the thought of blocking social networks and messenger services entirely is absurd as it punishes the majority of users that aren’t involved in criminal activity. While blocking known perpetrators’ social media accounts makes perfect sense, it doesn’t overcome their ability to set up new ones. Let’s face it, anyone can create an account and there are few, if no, checks in place to identify them. With regards to Blackberry Messenger it would involve turning off paying customers’ messenger services completely which will open up its own legal nightmare. Logically what the situation requires is for the social networks to work with police authorities and prosecution services to identify and track the offenders and gather evidence to aid their successful prosecution. We doubt though that the social networks will be willing to freely police their users in this way or risk disclosing personal and private details based on an allegation that may or may not be correct. There’s also the question of who pays for this to happen.

Nonetheless, we agree with the civil liberty advocates that such discussions should be made public and open to debate. Hasty agreements will only complicate the matter and could lead to further acts of censorship in the future, which is a very slippery slope!

Updated: 16th September 2011

When appearing before the Commons Home Affairs Committee which is investigating the causes of and responses to the recent riots, representatives from the major social networks Facebook and Twitter and from Blackberry have argued that a black out on such media during any future incidents could threaten public safety. Whilst several MPs had argued that social networks and Blackberry Messenger should be taken down, Lord Allan, representing Facebook, said: “When you have 30 million people in the United Kingdom actually using the tools to tell family and friends that they’re safe, we think to turn it off at that time would not serve the public interest.” This view was shared by the Police. Chief Constable Peter Fahy of Greater Manchester Police said: “While [social networking] has its dangers, it is a huge help to policing”

Have your say!

What are your views on the responsibility of social media in the recent riots and the plans to target violence and criminality that is organised via such sites? Do you think the sites should be blocked or users should have their accounts removed? Or do you think that the offenders will circumnavigate such blocks? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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