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Government backs away from plan to close social media sites during riots

  • @andymcsmith

Threats to close down Twitter and other social media during civil disturbances, raised in the heat of this month's riots, have been abandoned. The subject was not even discussed during an hour-long meeting between senior ministers, the police, and representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry yesterday.

The Government has executed a rapid climbdown after being alerted to the pitfalls of a policy put forward "in the heat of the moment". Whitehall sources privately admitted they were not now seeking any new powers to censor the internet.

One representative of social media who was at yesterday's meeting said: "The Government's position was set out right at the beginning: they are not out to shut down any social networks."

A Home Office statement said the Home Secretary, Theresa May, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and the Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne had had a "constructive" discussion with the industry about how to prevent the networks from being used to organise criminal behaviour.

A spokesman added: "The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour."

That contrasted with tough words from David Cameron when the Commons held an emergency session on 11 August. He told MPs: "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."

He was picking up on a suggestion made by David Lammy Labour MP for Tottenham, where the rioting began, who appealed to Research in Motion (RIM) to close down the Blackberry network overnight because it was to coordinate the riot.

The Tory MP Louise Mensch later went on Twitter to argue the same case. She tweeted: "I don't have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media.... We'd all survive if Twitter shut down for a short while during major riots."

But the idea ran into opposition both from civil rights groups and from the police. London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, said that the Metropolitan police had found Twitter and other media useful in gleaning intelligence about the rioters' intentions.

Ten civil rights groups sent an open letter to the Home Secretary yesterday warning that an idea raised "in good faith but in the heat of the moment" could lead to the abuse of "legitimate free communication."

Representatives of social media were careful not to gloat as they came away from their hour-long round table discussion, aware that public opinion was not wholly on their side.

A survey of 2,000 people, carried out by marketing agency MBA, found that 50 per cent would be in favour of a temporary shut down, despite more than a third saying they used social media as the primary news source on this month's riots.

Yesterday, RIM launched a new service that allows users of Blackberry Messenger to share music, to help shake off its reputation as a communication tool for rioters.

Rachel Bremer, a spokeswoman for Twitter, said: "Governments and law enforcement agencies around the world use Twitter to engage in open, public communications with citizens. We are always interested in exploring how we can make Twitter even more helpful and relevant during times of critical need."

A Facebook spokesman said: "We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on internet services."

Riots in brief

* Scotland Yard has warned fugitive rioters that it is "far from finished" as the force confirmed that more than 2,000 suspects had been arrested over the capital's disturbances. Scotland Yard's Operation Withern team has recorded a total of 3,443 crimes across the capital linked to the disorder, and of 2,006 people detained by officers over the violence that swept through London earlier this month, 1,135 have been charged. So far 954 cases have appeared in court, with 82 people sentenced and 42 jailed. Police have now published pictures of those given significant custodial sentences on Flickr.

* Petrol bombs were thrown at a marked police van on Wednesday night as it patrolled Edmonton, part of the north London borough of Enfield which was hit by this month's riots. No damage or injuries were sustained.

* A looter who took one lick of an ice cream before giving it away during the riots in Manchester has been jailed for 16 months. Anderson Fernandes, 21, took a cone and two scoops of coffee ice cream from a branch of Patisserie Valerie after finding the door ajar, but gave it to a passing woman as he did not like the flavour. The court heard that Fernandes had appeared in court earlier that day charged with possessing drugs and an offensive weapon.

* A former Deputy Assistant Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police has attacked the tactics used by police during the riots in Tottenham, an area where he previously served as a senior officer. "There was a disgraceful absence of visible leadership, and that should be shaming for the Metropolitan Police," David Gilbertson told the BBC. "With rank comes responsibility, and part of the responsibility is visible command. And secondly, there didn't appear to be a strategy."

* The 140-year-old furniture shop in the south London borough of Croydon that was destroyed in a spectacular blaze lit by rioters has re-opened in smaller premises just 20 yards down the road. The firm's director, Trevor Reeves, said he was "staggered" by the help received from the local community, as well as his 80-year-old father, Maurice.