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Blocking Twitter, Facebook during riots not such a hot idea - MPs

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Shutting down social media during times of civil unrest would be "actively unhelpful" and should not happen, a committee of MPs has said.

The Home Affairs Committee said that evidence from the riots in English cities in August showed that law enforcement had used social media to tackle the problem and that rioters had used traditional media in addition to social media to arrange their activities.

Prime Minister David Cameron said around the time of the riots that the Government would consider stopping people from using social networks in times of public disorder, but the Government later said that it is not looking to introduce new powers to do so. The Committee heard evidence from social media providers, the police and MPs before determining that a shutdown would not be merited.

"Although there is some evidence that BlackBerry Messenger and to a more limited extent Facebook were used to incite criminal behaviour, none of our witnesses recommended shutting down social media during times of widespread and serious disorder," the Committee said in its 'Policing Large Scale Disorder: Lessons from the disturbances of August 2011' report (49-page / 322KB PDF).

"They all agreed that there were positive and negative aspects to the use of such media and that, in the words of Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin, it would have been a 'net negative to turn it off.' Even David Lammy, who called for the suspension of BlackBerry Messenger while the disorder was taking place, said: 'I called for suspension in the heat of the problems. Clearly, the police were able to get order without suspension, so that is not my view now'. It would be actively unhelpful to switch off social media during times of widespread and serious disorder and we strongly recommend that this does not happen," the Committee said.

During the time of the riots debate centred on whether the Government would introduce new powers in order to shut down social media. Although the Government subsequently said it was not seeking new banning powers there are existing powers that enable it to shutdown communications in certain circumstances.

Under the Communications Act the Culture Secretary can force Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, to order communication providers to suspend their service if he has "reasonable grounds for believing that it is necessary to do so" if it is in "the interests of national security" or "to protect the public from any threat to public safety or public health". Ofcom is obliged to carry out the Culture Secretary's order by giving specific directions to service providers on what "networks, services and facilities" the order relates to and can force the provider to keep the suspension measures in place "indefinitely". Ofcom "may impose such conditions on the relevant provider" that appear to it "to be appropriate for the purpose of protecting that provider's customers", the Act states.

Consequences of a suspension order

The regulator must, "as soon as practicable" after giving a suspension order, give the service provider "an opportunity of making representations about the effect of the direction; and proposing steps for remedying the situation". Ofcom can also impose conditions that will enable service providers' customers to be compensated for loss or damage as a result of the suspension of a service, or "in respect of annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety to which they have been put in consequence of [Ofcom's] direction".

Technology law expert Danvers Baillieu of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, previously said that though the legal powers exist to ban the use of communications networks, in practice they would be hard to use.

“The Communications Act contains several sections, in particular section 132, which give ‘emergency powers’ to the government in times of national emergency,” Baillieu said. “Given that this Act was passed in the wake of 9/11 the context is clear and suggests that these powers should only be used sparingly."

“It is not clear what jurisdiction Ofcom would have if it ordered Facebook to close its site, whether in the UK or globally. Equally, it is not clear that the Act gives Ofcom power to order the network providers, such as BT, to suspend their networks selectively, in order to block access to certain websites."

“We know from the attempts in the Middle East to block certain sites during the unrest in Iran and the Arab Spring, that organised protestors can easily by-pass local restrictions on sites using proxy servers and other technological techniques – or just by moving over to alternative networks - rendering blocking totally ineffective."

“Even if companies such as Facebook and Twitter decided to co-operate voluntarily with UK authorities and suspend their services, it would be very difficult for them to know which accounts should be affected, unless they took down their entire service, which does not seem like something they would do voluntarily," he said.

Copyright © 2011, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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