Prime minister David Cameron has vowed a crackdown on the use of social networking to promote riots, after days of disturbance across the UK. The government is considering disabling the access of suspected rioters to BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Twitter, Facebook and mobile texting.
Social networks have been widely used by rioters to co-ordinate action. BlackBerry maker RIM has said it will co-operate with police under the RIPA Act – potentially compelling it to hand over messages to the police – and Twitter has worked with a number of police forces to verify their accounts.
The proposals for emergency situations, being considered by the prime minister, are likely to be met with discontent in case the wrong people are targeted – most law-abiding citizens also use the facilities for communication and staying in touch with family and friends.
In a House of Commons debate today, after parliament was recalled to deal with the issue, Cameron said that citizens were “struck” by how the riots “were organised via social media".
“Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill,” he said. “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.”
But a move to allow the blocking of social media is not guaranteed, and the government is likely to face resistance.
Human rights campaigners immediately highlighted the privacy impact on law-abiding citizens, warning that the wrong people could easily be targeted. Jim Killock, director at the Open Rights Group, told the BBC that he was concerned the riots were being used as a reason to curtail liberties, adding that “the courts must judge”.
“If court procedures are not used, then we will quickly see abuses by private companies and police,” he said.
Meanwhile, home secretary Theresa May is set to meet with representatives of Facebook, Twitter and RIM to discuss their obligations in times of trouble. The Home Affairs Select Committee has also said it will probe in the coming weeks the role of social networking in the problems.