The British government appears to have shelved plans to block rioting teens from using Facebook and Twitter or even shutting down Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger network during times of crisis, in response to this month’s violent disorder.
After much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the idea, Thursday’s meeting between the three technology companies and the Home Secretary passed calmly and without incident.
Any reference to blocking or restricting use of Facebook, Twitter and BBM was put aside at the very beginning of the meeting, the FT has been told, which has been described as “constructive” by both politicians and tech companies.
As the FT reported this morning, the discussions centred on how RIM, BlackBerry and Twitter can help the police to use their networks better during emergencies.
That’s in spite of prime minister David Cameron’s suggestion two weeks ago that the police, intelligence services and industry ought 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”.
Plenty of social media denizens were quick to point out the legal, practical and philosophical pitfalls of this approach, with some comparing it to measures taken by repressive regimes in Iran and Egypt.
Several human-rights groups on Thursday urged the government to reconsider any attempt to “review [legal] powers made in haste without proper consideration of the effects on legitimate communication, freedom of expression and privacy”. Even police forces in areas such as Sussex and Manchester rushed to defend social networks as more use on than off during times of crisis.
A Home Office spokesperson said:
“The Home Secretary, along with the Culture Secretary and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, has held a constructive meeting with 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 cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour.”
Facebook has been most keen to be seen to be co-operating with the authorities, in rioting as with other forms of online safety. Its real-name policy and large safety team make it perhaps easier to track down offenders who breach both the law and Facebook’s terms of service by planning violence on the site.
“We found today’s discussion at the Home Office constructive and built on much of the work we are already doing with the UK authorities to ensure Facebook remains one of the safest places on the internet. 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… There is no place for illegal activity on Facebook and we take firm action against those who breach our rules.”
Twitter, which with just a small team in London is perhaps the least well-resourced of the three tech companies in attendance, said:
“Governments and law enforcement agencies around the world use Twitter to engage in open, public communications with citizens. We’ve heard from many that Twitter is an effective way to distribute crucial updates and dispel rumours in times of crisis or emergency.
“People also use Twitter as a the first place to get information, monitor quickly changing events in real-time, and connect with friends, family and their communities. We are always interested in exploring how we can make Twitter even more helpful and relevant during times of critical need.”
BlackBery-maker RIM also seemed happy with the outcome, saying:
“It was a positive and productive meeting and 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.”
Additional reporting by Helen Warrell