England riots: Government mulls social media controls

 
Police line, AP Curbs on social media and texting are being considered by the government

The government is exploring whether to turn off social networks or stop people texting during times of social unrest.

David Cameron said the intelligence services and the police were exploring whether it was "right and possible" to cut off those plotting violence.

Texting and Blackberry Messenger are said to have been used by some during this week's riots.

Rights groups said such a measure would be abused and hit the civil liberties of people who have done nothing wrong.

The prime minister told MPs the government was exploring the turn-off in a statement made to the House of Commons during an emergency recall of Parliament.

Mr Cameron said anyone watching the riots would be "struck by how they were organised via social media".

He said the government, using input from the police, intelligence services and industry, was looking at whether there should, or could, be limits on social media if it was being used to spread disorder.

Under social media, Mr Cameron includes Facebook, Twitter and specific technologies such as text messaging. The semi-private BBM messaging system on the Blackberry is said to have been widely used during the riots.

Home Secretary Theresa May is believed to be meeting representatives from Facebook, Twitter and RIM (maker of the Blackberry) to talk about their obligations during times of unrest.

Civil liberty implications

In the statement, Mr Cameron said law enforcement was considering "whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality".

Start Quote

The only realistic answer is the courts must judge”

End Quote Jim Killock Open Rights Group

Questions about the technical feasibility and civil liberty implications of cutting off networks have been raised within the coalition, with many expressing scepticism about the proposal's workability.

Rights campaigners also criticised the idea. Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, said events like the UK riots were often used to attack civil liberties.

He questioned who was going to decide whether texts or tweets were an incitement to disorder.

"How do people 'know' when someone is planning to riot? Who makes that judgement?" he asked.

"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."

Any government policy to shut down networks deprived citizens of a right to secure communication and undermined the privacy required by a society that valued free speech, he said.

"David Cameron must be careful not to attack these fundamental needs because of concerns about the actions of a small minority," he said.

John Bassett, a former senior official at GCHQ and now a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Reuters that the government should resist a clampdown.

"The use of social media in the unrest looks like a game-changer," he said. "But any attempt to exert state control over social media looks likely to fail."

Far better, he said, would be to encourage community groups and individuals to report when they see disorder brewing online and ensure police have the tools to extract intelligence from social media.

 

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  • Comment number 239.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 238.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 237.

    " Instead of talking about a post-PC era, Microsoft's Frank Shaw said the near future should be regarded as a PC-plus era". i Can't wait for that. :(

  • rate this
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    Comment number 236.

    I live in China, and I can assure you that the methods of internet control that Mr Cameron mentioned work really well here in dealing with disturbances, particularly student, dissidents, artists and other trouble-makers.

    We've also managed to export them to a number of Arab countries as you could see during the events in Egypt.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 235.

    You guys voted these scum into power, they are robbing you blind, and all you can do is sweep up after them. And then you can always moan about the kids stealing candy. You can chose comfort, or you can start thinking for yourselves. There's nothing more difficult or more revolutionary than that.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 234.

    "Sounds like George W. Cameron is just longing for an excuse to get his mitts on everyone's personal info".
    ---------------------
    For all the facebook lovers, Cameron, just like any other honest salesmcan can always buy your info off Mark Zuckerberg, Those drunken pics from the office party, that snivelling wallpost after your girl dumped you, Mark has them all. And the cops can have them anytime

  • rate this
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    Comment number 233.

    Any effort to curtail freedom of speech in this country during unrest would result in greater civil disorder.

    But we all knew Cameron and his oiks were morons anyway.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 232.

    I've always wanted to ban facebook for its idiotic status messages, misspelling dimwits, and farm games. Good thing that the government is finally doing something in the public interest. Banning "social media" is only going to hurt the muggles, there's always 4chan for planning the raids

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    Comment number 231.

    if a foriegn goverment did this our goverment would be up in arms and we would end up bombing them

  • rate this
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    Comment number 230.

    It would seem that a complete ban would not be feasible nor would it protect the rights of citizens other than those who choose to be violent. Some sort of modification would be in order. Also, allowing tracking of messages for security purposes would be helpful, if possible.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 229.

    While attempting to block access to mobile communications may seem a sensible idea this item, published on Tuesday, shows it's already a redundant idea: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14458900. Those with smartphones are already able to circumvent any network withdrawal as, if I've understood correctly, the app will work direct from one smartphone to another without using the network.

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    Comment number 228.

    I think it's an excellent idea. I also think talking out loud should be banned during times of civil unrest, just to make sure those evil-doers can't organise their evil doings. Non-verbal communication, too, just in case. In fact, I think everyone should be locked inside their homes until the government feels it's OK to let them out. All in the name of law and order, of course.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 227.

    While being able to disable access to social networking sites, text messaging and the mobile phone network is a good idea there are those who will find a way around it. This item, published on Tuesday, demonstrates that the means of being able to circumvent attempts at restricting communications are already here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14458900

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    Comment number 226.

    That's a horrendous idea. Riots have existed all over the world long before social media, and if social media was gone tomorrow, riots still can and will take place.

    This hard-line, oppressive idea is like something I'd expect to hear from Tehran or Beijing, not London. Shame on you, Cameron.

    Those who trade freedom for the illusion of safety deserve neither.

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    Comment number 225.

    They're welcome to try but any blocks would be pretty easy to circumnavigate

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    Comment number 224.

    Who are these "rights groups"? how do they represent the rights of the vulnerable innocent people that have been attacked recently?
    The question is - would u rather your property/livelyhood taken away for life or a 24hr hold on social networking? They weren't contacting friends they were contacting EVERYONE willing to break the law. BIG difference. HUGE difference.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 223.

    Is there anybody at the wheel here?

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    Comment number 222.

    It's like saying shut down the motorways because drug traffickers use them.

    Crikey Moses, the naiveté! I'm not surprised the Police were ill-prepared - their Commander-in-Chief is stargazing in a snowstorm!

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    Comment number 221.

    Agreed with the many people who are saying that this is a stupid idea.
    Why should the actions of a few effect all!
    Plus the fact that social media and mobile devices are being used more and more to support a high tech economy. I would hate to put a figure on the lost business just from shutting these networks down.
    Setting up jammers may work and also a good point about banning convicted persons

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    Comment number 220.

    I was strongly opposed to the so-called 'hacktivists' who came to the fore in recent months, as an experienced programmer and (ethical) hacker myself. But banning social media websites, just like oppressive regimes around the world, will quite frankly make me think very hard about my condemnation of hacktivists. Even discussing the possibility makes me doubt this government, strongly.

 

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