UK Home Secretary Theresa May

Social networking sites meet with UK ministers and police over riots

Social networking sites are meeting with UK police and ministers to discuss how to work better during riots.

Home Secretary Theresa May is chairing the talks, attended by executives from Research in Motion’s Blackberry Messenger, Twitter and Facebook.

Police and MPs say they have some evidence social media, in particular RIM’s popular Blackberry Messenger (BBM), was used by rioters and looters to incite violence that tore through the capital and other English cities two weeks ago.

Many of the rioters favoured Canadian firm RIM’s BBM over Twitter and other social media because its messages are encrypted and private.

In the wake of the disturbances two weeks ago, that shocked the country, Prime Minister David Cameron has asked authorities to review “whether it would be right” to shut down online communication altogether during periods of social unrest. Such a move has been widely condemned as repressive when used by other countries, especially during the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

Egyptian authorities shut down mobile and internet services in January during mass protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak, while China is quick to shut down online communication it sees as subversive.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the talks will examine how police and the networks can work better together. “Amongst the issues to be discussed 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,” she said.

The Home Office stressed that “social networking is not a cause of the recent disturbances but a means of enabling criminals to communicate” and that needed to be tackled.

In the private meeting, May will meet heads of the Association of Chief Police Officers, security minister James Brokenshire, and civil servants from the Foreign, Culture and Media ministries.

Facebook has said that it has already prioritised a review of taking down content on its site that is “egregious during sensitive times like the UK riots”.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots RIM said it cooperates with all telecommunications, law enforcement and regulatory authorities, but declined to say whether it would hand over chat logs or user details to police.

Online social media firms also say that their services were widely used by members of the British public to help others avoid troublespots and to coordinate a clean up after the riots.

Responding to questions about Twitter’s role during the disturbances in London, the city’s top police officer Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin told a government committee he had toyed with the idea of seeking powers to switch it off. But he said: “The legality of that is very questionable and additionally it is also a very useful intelligence asset.”

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