- Posted July 25, 2012 by
Facebook and Twitter blackout during London riots
Facebook, Twitter and the maker of BlackBerry smartphones have firmly rejected suggestions from MPs that their services should be shut down
But they admitted the Government already has powers to order a blackout with which they wiould be forced to comply.
The firms were appearing before the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which is investigating the causes and responses to the riots in English cities last month.
Alexander Macgillivray,Twitter general counsel, told the Committee that forcing social networks offline was an “absolutely horrible idea”, because they were used by innocent people to share safety information and keep in touch with loved ones.
“Even the police forces are saying it’s not a good idea,” he added.
Lord Allan, representing Facebook, echoed that view, despite conceding a “handful” of its users had broken the law. Two men in Cheshire were jailed for four years for encouraging others to riot.
“When you have 30 million people in the United Kingdom actually using the tools to tell family and friends that they’re safe, we think to turn it off at that time would not serve the public interest," he said.
Some MPs have advocated that social networks should to be temporarily suspended during civil disturbances to stop them being used to organise trouble and spread panic.
The Home Secretary has said the government does not plan new laws to restrict social networks, an idea mooted by the Prime Minister at the height of the disturbances.
Stephen Bates, the managing director of RIM UK, the company that makes BlackBerry smartphones, which are the most popular brand among teenagers, said that under the Communications Act the Government already has powers to shut down communications networks in emergencies.
RIM’s BBM instant messenger system, which allows users to privately relay messages to large numbers of contacts, was used to organise looting.
But earlier, a series of police chiefs gave evidence that although they were abused to coordinate disturbances, social networks were also a force for good during the riots.
At an earlier hearing, Tim Godwin, the Acting Commissioner of the Met, said he had considered but rejected a blackout, partly because of unclear legal advice. Today Chief Constable Chris Sims of West Midlands Police said he would “absolutely not” advocate such action because of the positive impact they had.
His Assistant Chief Constable, Sharon Rowe, said officers needed to learn how to make the best of Facebook and Twitter for intelligence gathering, particularly how to distinguish false rumours from useful information.
“While [social networking] has its dangers, it is a huge help to policing,” said Chief Constable Peter Fahy of Greater Manchester Police. His force was particularly active on Twitter during and after the riots, disseminating verified information about disturbances and appealing for public help tracking down rioters.
“Police are waking up to the idea they need to engage with social media,” said Lord Allan, a former Lib Dem MP now in charge of Facebook’s European government relations.
“The police took some time to catch up and figure out how to deal with the motorised villain. Now they need to develop mechanisms to deal with the social media villain.”
He and Mr Bates said that their firms were still cooperating with police requests for user data related to the riots. Mr Macgillivray however said Twitter had not had any contact with investigators.
“We have not found our service is particularly good for organising illegal activity because it’s so public,” he said.
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