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.


More on This Story

England riots

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    I can't believe that the proposals being put forward regarding social internet sites and face masks are feasible. Nor was Cameron's recent talk about baton rounds and water cannon sensible. Once these knee jerk reactions and party posturings are out of the way we will hopefully get round to looking at the fractures in our society for which both parties in parliament bear some responsiblity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Where do you draw the line between "violence, disorder and criminality" and legitimate protests? My perception is that they're being overrun by technology they should instead use it to do what they're paid to do, that being protecting the population.
    Instead, their actions make them look no different than those dictators people are rebelling against. He's walking a very fine line...

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    The problem with that is people like me, who are not in London would not be able to find out if their family are safe, as I eventually was able to on Monday night. Her home was destroyed in Ealing and they had to run for their lives. Not knowing for an hour or so was horrific enough, but thankfully she contacted me before I saw her building on fire on the news! It would have been a nightmare!

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    I am sure that the less liberal regimes of this world will be fascinated by this development. If the Britsh Government succeed in turning off social media sites during periods of disruption will the likes of Col. Gaddafi and Bashir al Assad will do precisely the same thing,
    The social media sites have certainly had the effect of improving the democratic process.
    Will we throw it all away

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    Managed to keep up with and inform friends who live in London what exactly was happening during the riots thanks to responsible sites feeding/checking stories as they came in from people on the ground, hours before the media or indeed the police were reacting. Social media has positive side. The Government could employ PSCO's who can sit at home and monitor such things during events as these ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    this is ridiculous!!! they havent even considered the fact that alot of people in this country abide by the law & in todays society social networking sites & texting are a massive part of our lives. what would happen if they shut this all down due to a minority & people have an emergency & cant contact others. alot of young adults dont have a lot of money & organise by text, and young doesnt=yobs

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Nick Robinson described the packed House of Commons as 'as if the country were at war'. I know what you were trying to get across Nick, but a poor choice of words while we are at war, on two fronts. I'm sure the servicemen and women on HERRICK and in the vicinity of Libya would be thrilled to hear your piece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    The UK is already a large police state and I fear this recent event will only advance the elite's plan. From the DB:

    "Counter revolutionary provocations are well known to be used by the ruling elites in order to stimulate public outrage with demands for more draconian measures to stamp out the riots and to engender support for more authoritarian actions."

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    "whether there should, or could, be limits on social media"

    Sounds like George W. Cameron is just longing for an excuse to get his mitts on everyone's personal info.

    Well Bush didn't flinch from personal data- & phone-tapping, & Cameron has some friends in the business, I hear, so who knows?

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    I can't believe people are selfish enough to say it is repressive to switch off social networks in order to save peoples lives, premises, and homes. They obviously think it is more important that people can go on farmville, and talk rubbish on people's facebook walls, and 'like' stuff. It's so sad. MSN is all people need to keep in touch with the people that matter. Anything more gets chaotic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Laws like this can and will be abused. Government has proven itself to not be trust worthy with our money let alone our freedoms. This country literally needs a revolution of sorts. Every single person involved with the Government needs to be thrown out. Theres a generational gap between them and the future of the country that is not able to be filled. And spying on people in 2011? We need change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    Piccadilly square in Manchester city centre was completely sealed off by police on the night of riot. Part of the cyber space is no different from Piccadilly square in this sense. A complete shut down, but a selective censorship based on black-listed key words is necessary in emergencies. Also, retweet and message forwardind need to be temporarily suspended when facing mass social unrest

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    This is absolutely the wrong direction. The last few days made me realise how ignorant I am of social media and modern communication channels. It struck me that 'old' media (papers, TV) which condemned the riots were not channels which the rioters would themselves engage with. We need to understand & engage with modern media rather than fear and close them - they can be a force for both good & bad

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    Talk about totally out of their depth. Knee-jerk, pandering to the tabloids. I know, let's charge these kids with terrorist offences and send them to Guantanamo. Get a grip Dave.

    Block Farmville? then you'd certainly have a nationwide riot on your hands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Wedge. The thin end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Yes, social networks helped rioters/ looters assemble and organize. They also helped me avoid areas where there was trouble while I was in London last week. Without them I would've walked straight into one of the trouble spots. This is not a 'wishy-washy' liberal issue - this is dead serious. Our traditional rights must be paramount.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    I really hope and pray that HM Court Service deal out suitable punishments and not these silly £50 fines. All those involved in any disorder should be sent to jail - no excuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    So the government wants a big Web 2.0 turn off switch ?
    Will it be labelled. "Pull in Case of Embarrassment?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    The technology is develop very fast, most people have smart phone. In one way it is good to have bbm so if you have relatives live on the other side of the world you still keep in touch, and see how you are through your pic on the media. There are advantage and disadvantage, but it is depend how we used it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    We should probably stop giving everyone food, as that gives rioters their energy. Also stopping their oxygen supply, that'll prevent them from making plans won't it?

    'Blaming' social networking or other communication forms is absurd. The government are ignoring the social issues behind these uprisings. I do not support the individuals but Cameron et al are lost in their approach to this problem.


Page 2 of 12


More Technology stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.