David Cameron, the U.K. prime minister, said the government is considering whether it should block social-networking websites and messaging services during violent unrest after the country’s worst riots since the 1980s.
The government is working with police, the intelligence services and companies 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,” Cameron said today in parliament. He mentioned Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry Messenger service as one of the tools that were used by rioters.
Police have said they are investigating the use of social-networking services such as those operated by Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and BlackBerry Messenger. Three people were arrested by police in Southampton, England, on suspicion of using social media and messaging to encourage rioting.
“If you try to stop people communicating, you create more of a problem,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, an organization promoting freedom of expression on the Internet. “People are angry because their freedoms are threatened.”
RIM “welcomes the opportunity for consultation” with the British government and other technology companies, according to an e-mailed statement. RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, also said it continues to respect both U.K. privacy laws and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which allows police to gather encrypted information that might otherwise be private as part of an investigation. Twitter spokespeople couldn’t immediately be reached.
Tactics such as blocking social networks invite comparisons with toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said Daniel Hamilton, director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties group that argues for privacy and the reduction of government monitoring. The U.K. government must “avoid the temptation to engage in populist authoritarianism,” in response to the riots.
All social media will be reviewed, Cameron’s spokesman Steve Field told reporters. The government is still investigating how useful and practical blocking the websites and services would be and hasn’t reached any conclusion, he said.
More than 1,300 people have been arrested in the U.K. since the disorder began on Aug. 6, with 888 of those in London.
“Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill,” Cameron said today. “When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”