The UK is considering disrupting online social networking during civil unrest, Prime Minister David Cameron says.
Police and politicians have said online social networks, in particular Research in Motion’s Blackberry Messenger (BBM), were used by rioters and looters to coordinate during four days of disorder across England this week.
“We are working with police, the intelligence services and industry to 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,” Cameron told parliament during an emergency session prompted by the riots.
Many of the rioters favoured RIM’s BBM over Twitter and other social media because its messages are encrypted and private. The company said on Monday that it cooperates with all telecommunications, law enforcement and regulatory authorities, but it declined to say whether it would hand over chat logs or user details to police.
Online social media was also widely used by members of the British public in recent days to help others avoid trouble-spots and to coordinate a clean up after the rioting had ended.
Authorities grappling with violent unrest should avoid heavy-handed clampdowns on social media and instead try to enlist the help of the public against the rioters, said John Bassett, a former senior official at British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
“The use of social media in the unrest looks like a game-changer. But any attempt to exert state control over social media looks likely to fail,” he said. “A much better approach would be to encourage and support individuals and community groups in identifying alarming developments on social media and even speaking out on the internet against extremists and criminals, and ensuring that the police have the skills and technical support to get pre-emptive and operational intelligence from social media when necessary.”