MPs: Rioting should not lead to Twitter blocks

The government should not block social media during times of civil disturbance, the home affairs select committee has said, in a report about the August riots

Civil disturbances such as the riots in August 2011 should not lead to the UK government blocking social networks, according to an influential government committee.

London riots

The UK government should not take social networks offline during future civil disturbances, the home affairs select committee has said. Photo credit: Nicobobinus/Flickr

Social networks such as Blackberry Messenger and Facebook were used to incite criminal behaviour, the home affairs select committee said in a report on Monday (PDF). Nevertheless, social media was also used by the police for intelligence purposes and to reassure the public, said the committee.

"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 report said.

At the time of the August riots, which were sparked in London by police fatally shooting a man named Mark Duggan, prime minister David Cameron said the government was considering blocking access to social media for people "plotting violence, disorder and criminality".

In November, foreign secretary William Hague denied that the government had been hypocritical to praise Arab Spring movements, which were heavily reliant on social networking, and yet consider a social media crackdown in the UK.

It would be actively unhelpful to switch off social media during times of widespread and serious disorder.

– Committee report

The August riots started in London, then spread across the UK to cities including Birmingham and Liverpool. Social and traditional media showed police apparently taking no action against looters, thus encouraging others to riot, said the committee.

"The single most important reason why the disorder spread was the perception, relayed by television as well as social media, that in some areas the police had lost control of the streets," the committee said. "Some of those who took part in the disturbances undoubtedly did use social media to communicate with each other, but television also played a part in spreading the disorder."

There is scant evidence that Twitter was used to incite criminality, the committee found, despite government statements at the time. Home secretary Theresa May told parliament in August that Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger had been "used to co-ordinate criminality and stay one step ahead of the police". In practice, people with criminal intent were more likely to use encrypted services such as Blackberry Messenger than unencrypted services such as Twitter, the committee said.

Police need to work out how to deal with the sheer volume of data that is generated by social media to use it as an intelligence source more effectively, according to officers giving evidence to the committee.

"We are into a totally new game now and a new world of fast dynamics where we have to put a policing operation in very quick time in place," West Midlands Police assistant chief constable Sharon Rowe told the committee on 15 September. "We have that challenge of being able to evaluate what is true and what is rumour... I think we have to ask some questions around how are we to turn that intelligence around quicker."

The Home Office told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that it was "considering the report".

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