Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cameron Exploring Crackdown on Social Media After Riots

New York Times

Eric Pfanner

PARIS — Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said Thursday that the government, seeking to prevent a repeat of riots and looting in London and other British cities this week, might bar suspected troublemakers from using social media and other digital communications tools.

Mr. Cameron said that Theresa May, the Home secretary, would meet with executives of the Web companies Facebook and Twitter, as well as Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone, to discuss possible measures that could be put in place.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Mr. Cameron told Parliament during a special debate on the riots. “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

“And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

While Mr. Cameron said that the Internet and sophisticated mobile phones had been used to coordinate the violence, his call for curbs drew protests from free-speech campaigners, saying they were reminiscent of moves by Arab rulers to block digital communications during anti-government uprisings this year.

Free-speech groups said restrictions on the use of social media or smartphones would be difficult to enforce and could violate basic freedoms.

“It seems like a bizarre and kind of knee-jerk reaction by the government,” said Padraig Reidy, news editor of Index on Censorship. “We’ve seen this kind of thing time and time again, especially with young people, when it comes to technology. Now it’s social networks and smartphones. A few years ago it was video games. Before that it was horror films.”

“More recently, we’ve seen this kind of thing in Egypt,” he said, where the government last winter moved to block access to the Internet and mobile phone networks as protesters took to the streets. “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. These things weren’t caused by Twitter or BlackBerry.”

Index on Censorship said that the police should be allowed access to messages related to specific investigations, but should not be permitted to monitor or suspend communications.

The police said Thursday that they had arrested three people in Southampton, England, on suspicion of using BlackBerry Messenger or Twitter to encourage rioting.

The Guardian newspaper has published examples of “broadcasts” that BlackBerry users sent to their contacts, urging them to join in the looting and arranging gatherings. The BlackBerry Messenger service is difficult for the law-enforcement authorities to track.

“If you’re down for making money, we’re about to go hard in east london tonight, yes tonight!!” one of these broadcasts read. “I don’t care what ends you’re from, we’re personally inviting you to come and get it in.”

While the BlackBerry used to be seen mostly in the hands of business executives, its security features and low price, relative to competing devices, have helped it gain new adherents. According to Ofcom, the British telecommunications regulator, it is the most popular smartphone among British teenagers, with a 37 percent market share.

Britain is not the only place where BlackBerry Messenger has come under scrutiny from law enforcement officials and politicians over its tight security. After being threatened with a ban on its services in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Research In Motion has made certain concessions.

The company declined to comment on Mr. Cameron’s remarks, falling back on a statement it issued earlier in the week, in which it said: “As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials. Similar to other technology providers in the U.K. we comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and U.K. police forces.”

Neither the government nor Research In Motion has provided details about this cooperation, or about what, if any, information might have been turned over to the police.

Twitter could not immediately be reached for comment. Facebook, meanwhile, said it had already removed “credible threats of violence” from the site, as well as accounts that were registered under fake names.

Facebook also emphasized that social networks were used in positive ways by Britons responding to the riots, including mass cleanups by neighborhood residents brandishing brooms.

“We look forward to meeting with the home secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the U.K. at this challenging time,” the company said.

Mr. Cameron’s call for a crackdown on social media echoes recent calls for a “civilized Internet” by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

While Mr. Cameron and the police said that digital technology fueled the rioting, law enforcement officials have also used social media in their investigation. The police, for example, have posted pictures of suspects on Flickr, a photo-sharing site.

Gareth Davies, head of the digital practice at MSL Group in London, a public relations agency, said any curbs on social media or communications networks held risks, saying these tools were also used, for example, by people trying to avoid trouble spots. Meanwhile, all anyone who wanted to join a riot had to do was to turn on their television, where 24-hour news channels were providing blanket coverage.

“You can’t really blame social networks and smartphones for this,” Mr. Davies said. “It’s not as if people were saying, ‘O.K., I’ve got Blackberry Messenger, now let’s go riot.’ There were riots long before there was BlackBerry Messenger.”

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