Social-networking sites resist calls to restrict use during unrest

 

Social networking sites are expected to resist measures cracking down on their use during civil unrest at a summit between government ministers, police and industry leaders today.

The Prime Minister threatened to ban rioters from Twitter and Facebook in the aftermath of the violence in cities earlier this month. However, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, will seek a compromise with executives from the sites during talks in London, despite calls from some quarters that police should be given the power to pull the plug on services at times of tension.

The use of social media by looters was one of the key characteristics of this summer's wave of violence and will be discussed at the Whitehall meeting attended by leading representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion, the company which makes BlackBerry devices which were reportedly deployed by groups to orchestrate disturbances.

Some police forces are understood to be opposed to a total ban on the sites which are closely monitored by officers to gather intelligence on impending trouble. The acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tim Godwin, told MPs that he had considered seeking to have Twitter shut down during the height of the lawlessness.

Social networking sites believe they have sufficient internal safeguards in place to prevent them being hijacked by gangs of would-be rioters and will reject pressure to give police or politicians greater control over them. But Mrs May is likely to press executives on ways of introducing still stronger measures.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Social networking is not a cause of the recent disturbances but a means of enabling criminals to communicate. We are working with the police to see what action can be taken to prevent access to those services by customers identified as perpetrators of disorder."

A spokeswoman for Facebook said it had acted in recent days to remove "credible threats of violence" from the site. "We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK," the spokeswoman added.

More people appeared in court yesterday accused of using social networking sites to encourage rioting. Four men were ordered to return to Preston Crown Court in October in connection with the disturbances. Magistrates in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, heard how Hollie Bentley, 19, posted Facebook messages encouraging a "Wakey riot". She did not offer a plea and was told her case would be dealt with in a Crown Court.

Greater Manchester Police continue to use social media to round up suspected rioters. The force posted more CCTV images on Flickr of people attacking shops in the city centre. Officers raided a flat in Salford yesterday after the picture of a suspected looter was posted on the site.

A 16-year-old boy who admitted using Facebook to incite thefts and criminal damage during the riots has been identified after a court order protecting his anonymity was lifted. Johnny Melfah, of Droitwich, Worcestershire, is due to be sentenced on 14 September at Worcester youth court.

Court jails two rioters

The first two men to be sentenced in a crown court for their part in the London riots were jailed yesterday.

Richard Bezzina, 43, received 20 months for violent disorder in Hackney on 8 August, and Steven Frear, 20, was sentenced to six weeks for possessing an offensive weapon in Enfield on 10 August. The cases were heard at Wood Green Crown Court in north London.

Bezzina had pleaded guilty at Thames magistrates' court on 13 August. Frear had pleaded guilty at Enfield magistrates' court on 12 August.

David Robinson, London Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor, said that the prosecutions served as a "strong reminder" the CPS would take firm action to deal with "this sort of criminal behaviour which affects the whole community".

He added: "Across London, opportunists committed very serious acts ... at night when communities feel at their most vulnerable. Over the coming months we will prosecute many more people in relation to the disturbances."