Post-riot, UK government halts talk of social media shutdown

The UK government does not appear to support shutting down social networks in times of crisis

The U.K. government met on Thursday with technology companies for a post-mortem on the violent riots earlier this month, but made clear from the onset that it was no longer considering shutting down services in times of crisis.

Home Secretary Theresa May met with representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion, three companies whose services were used by participants in the violent rioting across several U.K. cities.

After the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron said the U.K. would look at "whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence." The suggestion that the U.K. could censor social networking services brought wide criticism.

The Home Office said in a statement that the discussions revolved around improving the "technological and related legal capabilities of the police" when dealing with services that are being used for criminal behavior. The Home Office did not mention if it discussed shutting down services with the companies.

But a statement from Facebook said that from the start of the meeting May "set the tone clearly that we were not there to discuss restricting Internet services."

"We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on Internet services," the statement read.

Facebook did acknowledge that "sometimes we have to be more vigilant or react faster when there are exceptional circumstances," such as the recent shootings in Norway or the riots in the U.K.

"When we are dealing with situations that are heightened or sensitive such as the U.K. riots, then content relating to this specific issue is prioritized," Facebook said. "As a result, the team works around the clock to ensure that take-down times for such content is decreased and content that straddles the line of acceptability is closely monitored."

Facebook said that it processes reports about content that is against its rules to its User Operations teams, which work 24 hours a day around the world. The company has a law enforcement team dedicated to helping U.K. police improve their skills in using the service to handle serious crime.

On Aug. 16, a British court sentenced two men to four years each in prison for using Facebook to try to organize two riots, one of the sternest punishments meted out so far for misbehavior and one that has been criticized as being too harsh. Neither riot actually took place.

Facebook said in its statement that the service was also used for positive actions, such as organizing groups to clean up debris from the streets following the disturbances.

RIM, whose BlackBerry devices are popular with U.K. youth, called the discussions "positive and productive." Young people are thought to buy BlackBerry devices for Messenger, an instant messaging application that allows people to broadcast messages to many users. It has been blamed for enabling youths to quickly mass in key neighborhoods in London and other U.K. cities hit with looting and arson.

Twitter was more oblique and did not mention Thursday's meeting with the government. "We've heard from many that Twitter is an effective way to distribute crucial updates and dispel rumors in times of crisis or emergency," the company said.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

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Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
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