UK

Social media talks about rioting 'constructive'

  • 25 August 2011
  • From the section UK
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A street cleaner sweeps up around a smouldering van set alight during riots in Hackney in London
More than 1,400 people have appeared in court in connection with the riots

The government and police have not sought any new powers to shut social networks, the Home Office said after a meeting with industry representatives.

Instead they held "constructive" talks aimed at preventing violence being plotted online through existing co-operation, the Home Office said.

The meeting with representatives from Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry was held in the wake of English city riots.

The prime minister has said police may need extra powers to curb their use.

Networks such as Blackberry Messenger - a service which allows free-of-charge real-time messages - were said to have enabled looters to organise their movements during the riots, as well as inciting violence in some cases.

Criminal behaviour

Following Thursday's meeting, a Home Office spokeswoman said: "The home secretary, along with the Culture Secretary and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, has held a constructive meeting with Acpo (the Association of Chief Police Officers), the police and representatives from the social media industry.

"The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and co-operation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behaviour.

"The government did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks."

Dispelling rumours

Prime Minister David Cameron has also said the government would look at limiting access to such services during any future disorder.

A Twitter spokeswoman said after the meeting that it was "always interested in exploring how we can make Twitter even more helpful and relevant during times of critical need".

She added: "We've heard from many that Twitter is an effective way to distribute crucial updates and dispel rumours in times of crisis or emergency."

A Facebook spokesperson said: "We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on internet services."

The company said it had highlighted the role Facebook played during the riots, such as people staying in contact and organising the clean-up.

"There is no place for illegal activity on Facebook and we take firm action against those who breach our rules."

A spokesman for Blackberry maker Research In Motion said the meeting was "positive and productive".

The company said: "We were pleased to consult on the use of social media to engage and communicate during times of emergency. RIM continues to maintain an open and positive dialogue with the UK authorities and continues to operate within the context of UK regulations."

A number of people have appeared in court in recent weeks for organising or attempting to organise disorder on social networks.

Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw were jailed for four years for incitement on Facebook

Jordan Blackshaw, 21, from Marston, Cheshire, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, from Warrington, Cheshire, were jailed for four years for online incitement.

Blackshaw had created a Facebook event entitled "Smash Down Northwich Town" while Sutcliffe-Keenan set up a Facebook page called "Let's Have a Riot in Latchford". Both have said they will appeal.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old David Glyn Jones, from Bangor, north Wales, was jailed for four months after telling friends "Let's start Bangor riots" in a post that appeared on Facebook for 20 minutes.

And Johnny Melfah, 16, from Droitwich, Worcestershire, became the first juvenile to have his anonymity lifted in a riot-related case for inciting thefts and criminal damage on the site. He will be sentenced next month.

Plotting violence

In the aftermath of the riots, which spread across England's towns and cities two weeks ago, Mr Cameron said the government might look at disconnecting some online and telecommunications services if similar circumstances arose in the future.

"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," he told MPs during an emergency session of Parliament.

Tim Godwin, the Met police's acting commissioner, also said last week that he considered requesting authority to switch off Twitter during the riots.

However, he conceded that the legality of such a move was "very questionable" and that the service was a valuable intelligence asset.

Meanwhile, Guardian analysis of more than 2.5 million riot-related tweets, sent between 6 August and 17 August, appears to show Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting, including organising the street clean-up.

The newspaper found the timing of the messages posted "questioned the assumption" that Twitter was used to incite the violence in advance of it breaking out in Tottenham on 6 August.

Currently, communications networks that operate in the UK can be compelled to hand over individuals' personal messages if police are able to show that they relate to criminal behaviour.

The rules gathering such queries are outlined in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

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