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UK may block Twitter, Facebook to help stop future riots

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The British government is considering banning access to social networks like Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger for people suspected to be conspiring to commit criminal activity, reports the Guardian. The potential plan, which is intended to help quell future riots, comes after social networks facilitated the rapid spread of destructive civil unrest that rocked London and other cities for much of this week.

News of the plan comes straight from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who reportedly informed parliament of possible free speech-blocking strategy. Cameron said that the government is currently investigating ways to stop rioters from inciting destruction over these networks.

As part of this plan, Cameron announced that the UK’s home secretary, Theresa May, will have meetings with Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion (RIM) to discuss their roles and responsibilities in the riots. Cameron also indicated that news organizations, including the BBC and Sky News, should hand over any unused footage of the riots to help bring looters and other rioters to justice.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck 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,” said Cameron.

“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.

“I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”

UK law-enforcement authorities have also used social networks to further their goals. Scotland Yard set up a Flickr page with CCTV images of suspected looters in an attempt to identify the individuals. A number of private citizens also set up websites to help catch looters. In addition, British authorities used Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger to arrest a number of individuals who were found to be using the services to incite violence, riots and other criminal activity.

More than Twitter and Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is thought to have played a major role in the initial spread of destruction. BBM is a private social network that is only accessible to BlackBerry users. The messages that are sent over BBM are most often encrypted to a point where even RIM can’t decode what the messages say.

Because of its role in the riots, Canada-based RIM agreed to cooperate with Scotland Yard’s investigation, which quickly resulted in one of their BlackBerry blogs being hacked, and employees threatened.

Cameron’s plan to ban citizens from using social networks to express themselves has been met with expected opposition from civil liberties groups.

“Events like the recent riots are frequently used to attack civil liberties. Policing should be targeted at actual offenders, with the proper protection of the courts,” said Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group.

“How do people ‘know’ when someone is planning to riot? Who makes that judgment? The only realistic answer is the courts must judge. If court procedures are not used, then we will quickly see abuses by private companies and police.Companies like RIM must insist on court processes.

“Citizens also have the right to secure communications. Business, politics and free speech relies on security and privacy. David Cameron must be careful not to attack these fundamental needs because of concerns about the actions of a small minority.”

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