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Police need to clamp down not just on violent protesters, but also on the twits – and any other social networkers – who encourage them online.

That was the view expressed by Labour Shadow Treasury Minister, David Hanson, who intervened during debate on last weekend's violent events in the centre of London, to remind the home secretary that it is an offence to encourage or assist crime.

He went on: "Will she please examine and have a conversation with the police to ensure that people who use social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook to encourage or assist crime are prosecuted?"

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, who has hitherto shown herself refreshingly reluctant to take on new police powers where existing ones would do, batted that into the long grass with a politic and somewhat non-committal response.

Describing this as "an interesting point", she told Hanson: "After such events, it is important that we take the appropriate time to consider all the issues that have arisen and give proper consideration to whether we need to give the police any further powers to enable them to do the job we want them to do in this new environment."

It may be that she was also thinking that more time is needed to digest the impact of additional steps that have already been taken in the area of "encouragement" by police.

In February of this year, the Home Office launched its own facility, via all-purpose UK government site direct.gov, to enable members of the public to report extremism and terrorism online. This links through to a short online form that asks would-be crime reporters whether the badness being reported is happening now and whether it is online.

If the answer to those two questions is yes, informers are then asked to specify the type of material seen and the website address on which they saw it. Given current public attitudes to some anti-cuts protests, it looks as though Hanson has his wish already.

According to Directgov, however, no identifying details will be taken in respect of those reporting possible terrorist activity online. We did ask the Home Office whether this was absolutely true and therefore what was to stop the site – and police – from being swamped by a barrage of deliberately time-wasting false reports.

The Home Office, however, declined to comment further.

David Hanson MP is no stranger to online incitement. On Wednesday he appeared to be soliciting proposals online for embarrassing questions to ask Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander MP. Ruefully he tweeted back to one follower that "Why did you sell out?" would be ruled out of order.

Meanwhile, his suggestion for more police powers on the net appears to have gone down poorly with some of his followers. On Monday, in the face of Twitter criticism, he could be seen frantically back-pedalling and pointing out that he was "only" calling for the law on incitement to be applied wherever it took place.

Which sort of begs the question why he raised the matter in the first place. ®

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