By Daniel Paterson
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May have both suggested restricting access to social networking sites, such as Twitter, in the wake of five days of rioting at the beginning of August. The trouble started in London following a peaceful march on the 6th August, with protests against the shooting by police of a Tottenham resident. Unrest then spread across the country to Birmingham, Liverpool, Salford and Manchester, ending eventually on the 10th August following mass looting and violence.
The looting and violence has resulted in over 1,800 arrests in London alone, with over 1,000 people being charged so far in the capital and 1,179 court appearances across the country. Those appearing in front of magistrates were under various charges, including burglary, theft, handling stolen goods and violent disorder.
Suggestions of how to deal with public order issues in future have ranged from the reversal of cuts enforced on police forces around the country, to the use of water canon and rubber bullets, through to the switching off of social networking facilities such as Twitter and the Blackberry messaging service.
Of all the suggestions, it is the switching off of social networking facilities that has come in for most criticism.
In a statement to the UK House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron said
“…everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Calls from backbench MPs, from both the Conservative and Labour Parties, have backed a review of the use of social networking during public disorders. In an article for the Conservative leaning blog ConservativeHome, Nadine Dorries MP said
“In proposing to close down social media networking sites when threatening public disorder starts to break out, this Government is acting responsibly in using such a measure as an exercise in damage limitation...
…We must also remember that Twitter and Facebook were used to spread false rumours, to disrupt vital life saving services such as the Fire and Ambulance services and to direct criminals and looters to the areas and sites where the police had been ordered to stand back and not to take action”.
Labour Backbench MP, David Lammy, told Radio 5Live that the rioters’ use of the RIM Blackberry Messaging service was “one of the reasons why unsophisticated criminals are outfoxing an otherwise sophisticated police force”.
Standard bearers for the political left have already levelled claims that social disenfranchisement and an abdication of responsibility by the Government led to the outbreak of violence. Former Mayor of London Ken Livingston, along with the Labour MP for Derby North, Chris Williamson, put the blame for the unrest on the Government’s budgetary plans. However, several prominent Labour MPs for London constituencies distanced themselves from this idea. Diane Abbott told The Daily Mail that ‘Cuts don’t turn you into a thief. What we saw was people thieving for hours”.
The Government has stated that there will be a full independent inquiry into the whole series of events and their potential causes. This follows a commitment by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to speak with stakeholders within the social networking industry. To this end, Facebook and Blackberry manufacturer, RIM, are due to meet the UK Home Secretary on the 25th August to discuss the situation surrounding the riots and to discuss the Government’s proposals for curbing the use of social networking during future outbreaks of civil disobedience.
The UK is not the only place where such tactics have been considered in recent months. On 11th August San Francisco’s subway chief Linton Johnson took the decision to shut down the use of mobile phones at four underground stations in the city. This action led local citizens to compare the city’s authorities to former Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, who shut down social networking during the eventually successful campaign to overthrow his Presidency. Mubarak’s actions led to an international outcry against the regime’s suppression of the freedom of expression [See NSL issue 2 – Mubarak’s disastrous kill switch].
Issues surrounding the riots are likely to put pressure on both the Department of Work & Pensions and the Department for Education to resolve what Mr. Cameron describes as 'the broken society'.