In the wake of the riots that rocked the United Kingdom last week, social networking and instant messaging services have come under fire for how they were used by the rioters and looters to co-ordinate their movements and malevolent activities. In the same breath it must also be noted that a huge clean-up effort was organised using social media that really helped to rebuild communities at a time of crisis.
But now that things have calmed down somewhat, Home Secretary Theresa May has invited representatives from Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry to the Home Office for a meeting about the role played by social media and what can be done to prevent this happening again. Speaking in Commons, the Prime Minister said that the government would “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.”
Facebook is the only confirmed attendee for next Thursday’s meeting. Research In Motion (the owner of BlackBerry and the BBM instant messaging service) have welcomed the opportunity for consultation with other technology and communications companies, without formally accepting the invitation to the Home Office. Twitter have yet to comment.
Two men have already been jailed for four years each for using Facebook to incite disorder during the riots. Both men were charged with online incitement and pleaded guilty to intentionally encouraging another to assist the commission of an indictable offence.
This is not the first time that governments have either thought about or actually shut down communications networks. Last year I blogged about the US President’s ‘kill-switch’, and we also saw an internet blackout during the Egyptian uprising earlier this year.