UK riots give birth to the idea of suspending social media services

By EDRi · August 24, 2011

This article is also available in:
Deutsch: [Britische Ausschreitungen lösen Ruf nach Sperre sozialer Medien aus |]

The recent riots that have taken place in the UK have initiated a
wave of statements from officials on the necessity to shut down or suspend
access of UK citizens to certain social media services.

The Metropolitan Police Service confirmed that it considered shutting off
some social media sites: “The MPS did consider whether social media sites
could be closed during the disorder but police do not have the facilities or
the legislation to enable this.”

David Lammy, the parliamentary representative for the London
district of Tottenham, went so far as to ask BlackBerry to consider
suspending its messaging service.

Even the prime minister David Cameron in his speech in the House of Commons
indicated that there was a need to find a way to stop people from
communicating via such services:
“Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for
ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop
them. 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.”

Privacy campaigners such as Open Rights Group (ORG) are concerned about the
precedent that might be created by this situation and the possible abuse of
powers by the authorities. “Events like the recent riots are frequently used
to attack civil liberties,” said Jim Killock, executive director of ORG
who added: “Policing should be targeted at actual offenders, with the proper
protection of the courts. How do people ‘know’ when someone is planning to
riot? Who makes that judgement? The only realistic answer is the courts must
judge. If court procedures are not used, then we will quickly see abuses by
private companies and police. Citizens also have the right to secure
communications. Business, politics and free speech relies on security and
privacy. David Cameron must be careful not to attack these fundamental needs
because of concerns about the actions of a small minority”.

Reporters Without Borders urged the British authorities “to rule out any
possibility of shutting down or drastically restricting the use of social
networks such as Facebook and Twitter”. The NGO also expressed its concern
on the personal data provided by Research in Motion (RIM) – the Canadian
manufacturer of the popular BlackBerry smartphone – the validity of the data
as evidence and the legality of the way it was acquired.

Reporters Without Borders declared that “(it) is not minimizing the gravity
of the situation in the United Kingdom and the urgency of the need to
restore order, but it believes that the provision of personal data to the
police sets a disturbing precedent in a western country and could have
significant consequences as regards setting an example for others kinds of

The tendency is even more concerning, as a study on the effects of
censorships published by AntonioCasilli from Telecom ParisTech and EHESS of
Paris, Paola Tubaro from Greenwich University, revealed that, actually,
censoring of the Internet and communication is a factor that increases the
violence of riots. The hypothesis is verified by the situation in Tunis
where the censoring of the Internet precipitated Ben Ali’s fall and in Egypt
where the total cut off of the Internet led to the civil uprisings against
Hosni Mubarak.

Concern that social networks to be targeted as BlackBerry helps British
police identify rioters (12.08.2011),40776.html

Social media information helped prevent some riot damage, police say

Rioters’ access to social media could be stopped, Government says

Prime Minister’s attack on social media unwarranted (11.08.2011)

A study reaches the conclusion that Internet censuring increases the riots
(only in French, 18.08.2011)