After the riots across England last month, social network chiefs from Facebook and Twitter, along with representatives from Research in Motion, attended a UK parliamentary committee yesterday to discuss the role of social media and technology during the week of violence.
Research in Motion drew heavy criticism by politicians and the public, as it was discovered that the encrypted BlackBerry Messenger network was used by rioters to spread locations of places where disorder eventually occurred. Facebook and Twitter were also criticised during the aftermath of the riots, but Facebook said that many of its users "self-policed" the site. Twitter, on the other hand, was defiant and said that the "tweets must flow", a point it made during the Arab Spring uprising earlier this year.
Stephen Bates of Research in Motion, the BlackBerry maker, surprised the committee when he said that the company "would comply" with orders such as shutting down of their network, in times of mass criminality or terrorism.
His evidence did not cover, however, whether the company would hand over instant messenger logs or its encryption keys to the police or intelligence services. Under UK law, it would be compelled to, but the BlackBerry maker has never confirmed whether it would, or indeed has.
While BlackBerry communications could be cut in future, the UK government backed down on plans to forcibly detach the network from existing cellular connections, in a bid to quell further rioting. The idea was floated that social media could be 'shut down' to prevent the spread of further disorder, if it were to break out again.
Twitterpublic policy executive, Alexander Macgillivray, told the committee that it would be an "absolutely horrible idea" to suspend social networks and online media, quoting the police as saying that they used it during the riots to determine where disorder was breaking out.
Richard Allan, a former politician, now director of policy in Europe with Facebook, the social network which was rebuked by members of the panel at the European Parliament's Privacy Platform last week, also gave evidence. The spokesperson said that the site was used by many lawfully to check whether family members were safe and well, and reiterated the 'self-policing' approach that many had undertaken.
Collectively, though Research in Motion made it clear that it would comply with lawful requests, all three agreed that shutting down social networks during a time of crisis would be a bad idea. Citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the company's spokespeople said that they were pleased the Home Secretary indicated that social networks would not be mandatorily blocked.
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