United Kingdom: Moves to police social media

Following the riots and looting in London and other parts of England last week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron  made a strong statement indicating his government is looking into the legal and technical means to limit access to Blackberry Messenger, even Twitter and Facebook to stop “violence”.

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 websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

Instead of fully suspending or disrupting the networks, one measure implied by Cameron's statement would be the suspension of certain users’ accounts. Other MPs have called for these services to even be shut down, and apparently the Metropolitan police were looking into this last week.

Eva Galperin of the Electronics Frontier Foundation writes of PM Cameron that in February

… he asserted that freedom of expression should be respected “in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.” The Prime Minister’s 180-degree shift on freedom of expression unfortunately places him one step closer to the growing, worldwide cohort of politicians and despots seeking solace in censorship.

Bloggers have pointed out that state-influenced Chinese news sources have expressed a sort-of “told you so” approval to Cameron's actions. Glenn Church, of the blog Foolocracy, wrote

When the Chinese give a ‘like’ to a style of repression, then that’s a sign to shift tactics. Tiananmen Square doesn’t belong in Trafalgar Square.

Both Access Now and Open Rights Group have both started online petitions in response to this. Quoting Access Now

Prime Minister Cameron, this is NOT Egypt, Syria, or Bahrain! Whilst we deplore the violence, calling for a blackberry and twitter shutdown is a very dangerous step in the wrong direction.

It also came to light that MI5 (Britain's Counter-Intelligence Agency) helped police decrypt Blackberry Messenger messages, and that the company which manages Blackberry's chat servers, Research in Motion (RIM), cooperated with authorities.

Meanwhile, English police have arrested a number of people for allegedly inciting criminal damage on Facebook.

The courts have begun to process some of these cases with speed, and people were even more shocked by the news that two young men Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan (ages 21 and 22) received four year prison sentences for creating “riot” events on Facebook, neither of which led to any looting.

Many people commented that they thought the courts were making an example of Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan. A Facebook page calling for their freedom already has hundreds of likes. (A “rot in jail” page has also been created.)

News of police arresting two men for arranging a water fight via Blackberry Messenger circulated widely.

Citygroundmike on Twitter said

4th August 2011; Iran arrests people for having a water fight. 14th August 2011; Essex Police arrest man for planning a water fight. Farce

Unsurprisingly, Blackberry Messenger users have started to discuss how to protect themselves, like on this Crackberry forum.

But companies too are having to make crucial decisions. Access Now and Mobileactive recently released a “5-Steps Every Rights-Respecting Telco Should Take” – perhaps executives at RIM will read?


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