Britain May Shut Down Social Media During Riots
Looters outside a Foot Locker in the south London neighborhood of Elephant and Castle on August 9th.
CREDIT: Flickr users Hojinza
Big Brother may soon be watching you, and as George Orwell predicted, he'll be British.
Following a request from Prime Minister David Cameron, Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) will be summoned next week to a meeting with British Home Secretary Theresa May to discuss ways of curtailing, or even shutting off, their social-networking functions in an emergency.
"Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and messaging services like Blackberry Messenger have been used to coordinate criminality, and stay one step ahead of the police," May told the House of Commons yesterday.
British politicians have been freaking out for the past few days after it became clear that looters and hooligans had been using social networking to coordinate mass larceny and violence during this week's unexpected riots, which quickly spread from London to other cities in England.
"I will convene a meeting with ACPO [regional police chiefs], the police and representatives from the social media industries to work out how we can improve the technological and related legal capability of the police," May said. "Among the issues we will discuss is whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."
Not exactly media hype
There's no doubt that social networking, especially RIM's private BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) feature, were instrumental in creating violence and destruction.
"If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east london tonight, yes tonight!!" read one BBM broadcast message captured on Monday by the Guardian newspaper. "We need a minimum of 200 hungry people. We're not broke, but who says no to free stuff. Doesn't matter if the police arrive cos we'll just chase dem out because as you've seen on the news, they are NOT ON DIS TING."
BlackBerry Messenger, unlike AOL Instant Messenger or other instant-messaging services, can be seen only by other BlackBerry owners. It also allows users to "broadcast" messages to multiple followers, similar to a Twitter feed. And BlackBerry's solid encryption means that police can't eavesdrop on the messages i.e., they're "not on this thing."
RIM on Monday said it was ready to cooperate with authorities in analyzing BBM logs. In response, an Anonymous-affiliated hacker defaced the official BlackBerry blog the following day.
As for Facebook, several arrests have already been made in England and the Channel Island of Guernsey for trying to organize looting sprees via Facebook and other social networks. And one of London's top cops blamed Twitter for spreading the violence beyond its original base in the north London neighborhood of Tottenham.
Some politicians were supportive of the proposed curbs.
"I don't have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media just as I don't have a problem with a brief road or rail closure," tweeted Louise Mensch, a Conservative member of Parliament, last night. "If short, necessary and only used in an emergency, so what. We'd all survive if Twitter shut down for a short while during major riots."
Mensch, a prolific Tweeter, is a white woman who belongs to Cameron and May's ruling party. But the first call to shut down BlackBerry Messenger came from David Lammy, a black MP from the opposition Labour Party who represents Tottenham,
"Immediate action needed," tweeted Lammy on Tuesday, after the second night of rioting. "LDNers cannot have another evening like last night tonight. BBM clearly helping rioters outfox Police. Suspend it."
Others weren't so sure that was a good idea.
"We do not believe this should be given any serious consideration," wrote Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, a British digital civil-liberties organization, in a blog posting. "Innocent people should not be punished for the actions of others.
"The coalition [government] should resist calls for police powers or private arrangements for account suspensions. They represent the worst type of so-called 'self-regulation' and could quickly lead to abuses."
Nick Cloke, the press officer for Sussex Police, engaged Mensch in a Twitter debate about the merits of shutting down Twitter.
"What about police using social media to actively dispel rumours?" Cloke tweeted last night. "More panic prob spread by TV - no suggest to shut that down? ... Active online engagement has helped reduce calls and spread of untrue rumours."