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November 8, 2011

UK govt reiterates social media ban threat for rioters

Theresa May admits possibility of "taking people off" Facebook, Twitter, BBM

By Steve Evans

UK Home Secretary Theresa May has said that those found guilty of violence and social disorder during this summer’s riots across the UK could be banned from accessing social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

In August this year a peaceful protest in Tottenham, North London, over the shooting by police of a local resident turned into a riot that destroyed many businesses in the area. Over the following nights the disorder spread to other parts of London, such as Hackney and Clapham, and across England.

It was speculated at the time that many of those taking part in the riots were using social networks to communicate with each other and organise disorder. However it appears the most popular method of communication was BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), a closed system where groups of people can send text message to each other.

Now Theresa May has confirmed that discussions have taken place with social network companies over banning access to their services.

Responding to a question from another MP about how the talks had progressed and what the outcome was, May told MPs: "I did indeed meet with Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry and met them with representatives from Acpo (Association of Chief Police Officers) and the Metropolitan Police.

"We discussed a number of matters, both how the police can actively use social media networks, but also the companies looking at the terms and conditions they have and when they might be taking people off the network because they might be breaching those terms and condition."

Shortly after the riots PM David Cameron said he was looking at the possibility to closing down these social networks to stop potential rioters from communicating with each other.

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The plan, however, was met with fierce criticism, with Jim Killock of online advocacy organisation Open Rights Group saying: "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.

"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," he said.

Facebook has also dismissed the idea of shutting the network down in times of emergency, with Joanna Shields, managing director of Facebook Europe telling the recent Wired 2011 conference, "I don’t think that’s ever going to happen."

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