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MPs probe social networks' position following riots

Shut down Twitter, how would the cops find the riots?

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Policy wonks from Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry faced MPs on the Home Affairs committee today who were carrying out a postmortem of the disorder across England last month.

Each company reiterated earlier statements that they operated within UK law when providing their communication services to their customers.

BlackBerry's UK managing director Stephen Bates repeatedly said that the company's messenger service (BBM) was "mostly used as a force for good".

He added that such a social media tool could be used by law-abiding citizens and thugs who want to incite violence, much like any other communications tool.

Bates said there was "no dispute" that BBM – an instant messaging service that can be used, following an individual user's consent, to send out information to a group of up to 30 individuals – "was used for malicious purposes".

He pointed out that the mobile phone outfit's 7 million customers in the UK represented a wide-ranging demographic of people.

"We do see within the Communications Act 2003 that the government has the power to suspend comms networks," he said.

BlackBerry complies with the laws of the land in which it operates, said Bates.

"We work freely within requirements of law as required under RIPA [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000]," he said, and added it was important for politicians to fully engage with social media.

"Use it, don’t be scared of it," said Bates.

Facebook's director of policy, Richard Allan, compared the slowness of authorities' responses to the rise of social networks to the slow pace at which police adapted to the early technology of cars.

"Police took a while to catch up with the motorised villain," he said, because the "ability to catch burglars was quite different to those caught on foot".

Allan was keen to dissuade Facebookers from using the platform to incite violence, as had been the case with a number of foolish individuals who used the site to urge people to riot in their local high streets in early August.

"Facebook is not a good platform for that kind of behaviour, it's too visible," he said.

"We've seen cases where people are prosecuted, and so they should be," added Allan.

Facebook has several hundred employees based in Ireland, India and the US who constantly respond to users of the site who report abuse of the service including, for example, racist or homophobic remarks.

He described the 30 million people in the UK who use Facebook as being akin to a "Neighbourhood Watch" – a scheme where curtain-twitchers sign up to keep a lookout in their local residential area in an effort to keep their neighbourhood better alerted against criminal activity.

The Facebook policy man claimed that the network "increased the feeling of well-being" among its users because the service allows an individual to notify their friends and family that they are OK with "one click" of the update button.

Allan said that, like BlackBerry, his company responded to "generally received" RIPA requests from the police about the riots. He declined to provide a breakdown of that figure, however.

"People normally stick to rules," he added, citing Facebook's terms of service. "Where individuals step outside of that, we understand that we need to act."

Allan said that politicos needed to work with a society that was "permanently connected" to the online world.

"We should assume this is going to be a reality henceforth".

Twitter general counsel Alexander Macgillivray dismissed the idea that the micro-blogging service was good for organising criminal activity, and claimed the company had no evidence to show it was used for that purpose during the recent disorder in England.

"We often get lumped in with other media out there... we think of ourselves as quite distinct. People come to Twitter to say things publicly," he said.

Twitter has 100 million users worldwide, however Macgillivray was unable to provide a breakdown for its UK market share.

He said that the idea of shutting down networks during social unrest, as recently mulled over and almost immediately rejected by Home Secretary Theresa May, "would be an absolutely horrible idea".

However, Twitter – in contrast with Facebook and BlackBerry – appears to have a non-existent relationship with UK police.

Instead Macgillivray simply stated that data about who tweeted what when was publicly available to any organisation wishing to scrutinise the information. That would help them draw their own conclusions about the site's role in the disorder that broke out in London, before moving to other cities within England for four days last month, he noted.

Home Affairs committee chair Keith Vaz MP asked for the companies' views on the government's power to close down networks during emergency situations.

"Our view is social media is a force for good. Legislation is there... If enacted we would meet our obligations," said Bates.

"As a service provider you never would advocate for your service to be made unavailable," said Allan.

Allan said it was "more acceptable" to respond to such a request where frameworks such as the one in the UK were in place.

Macgillivray batted the question aside.

"It’s clear from any communications device ever invented that some people will break the law," he said, perhaps stating the most obvious point of the entire debate. ®

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