British riots: Cameron considers ban on social networks

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U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is taking Marshall McLuhan’s phrase ‘the medium is the message’ very literally.

He said his government is considering banning people from using social networks and RIM’s BlackBerry’s messaging service who are suspected of inciting violence.


The police and intelligence services are looking 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 said.

‘Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill,’ he said. ‘When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.’

Not everyone is on board with Cameron’s proposal. In fact, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Peter Fahy talked about the value of social media with Sky News. He calls social media ‘a very valuable tool’ that has benefited police and the public.

‘There has been lot of concerns about social media in the current situation,’ he said. ‘On the other hand it’s a very valuable tool in getting information out there.’

Cameron himself said in a speech Thursday: ‘We have seen the worst of Britain, but
I also believe we have seen some of the best of Britain -- the million people who have signed up on Facebook to support the police, coming together in the clean-up operations.’

Police say the riots are the worst in London in the last 25 years. The violent unrest began after an Aug. 6 march in Tottenham protesting the death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, who was killed in a firefight with police.

Cameron’s proposal is being roundly condemned by free speech advocates and social media experts who say it smacks of the attempts to clamp down on dissent during the uprisings in Egypt and Libya.

‘If you try to stop people communicating, you create more of a problem,’ Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, an organization promoting freedom of expression on the Internet, told Bloomberg News. ‘People are angry because their freedoms are threatened.’

Facebook has a policy of removing threats of violence and hate speech.

A Facebook spokesman said in an e-mailed statement: ‘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 UK at this challenging time. In recent days we have ensured any credible threats of violence are removed from Facebook and we have been pleased to see the very positive uses millions of people have been making of our service to let friends and family know they are safe and to strengthen their communities.’

Twitter spokeswoman Rachel Bremer said: ‘If the government would like to get in touch, we’d be happy to listen.’

During the uprisings in Tahrir Square in which the Egyptian government shut down access to social networks and mobile communications, co-founder Biz Stone and Twitter’s general counsel Alex Macgillivray wrote a blog post ‘The Tweets Must Flow.’

‘We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content,’ they wrote.

On Twitter, sentiment predictably turned against Cameron.

‘Oh, David Cameron - you know blocking social media won’t stop rioting. But it may briefly interrupt the RT’d criticism of your leadership,’ tweeted Kate Crawford, a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.


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-- Jessica Guynn