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Louise Mensch MP backs emergency shutdown of Facebook and Twitter

Conservative MP Louise Mensch has added her voice to the knee-jerk clamour for clamping down on social networks in times of crisis.

More MPs are calling for a ban on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger in times of crisis. Conservative MP Louise Mensch has added her voice to this ill-thought out, authoritarian, knee-jerk clamour for clamping down on social media.

"If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. World won't implode," Mensch tweeted.

We were horrified by the shocking scenes of the past week, and we're not for a second condoning the horrific violence and looting seen in London, Manchester and around the country, but we disagree with this argument on several levels. Mrs Crave raised us not to talk about politics in polite company, but she didn't raise no fools either.

When challenged, Mensch tweeted, "Really, stop w/ all the dramatics. Nobody is talking about 'shutting down Twitter'. It's about listening to police & a couple hours off."

We're on board with listening to the police, but imposing restrictions on communications, even "a couple of hours off" is the thin end of the wedge. The recently deposed Egyptian totalitarian regime showed a penchant for taking out communications at the first sign of trouble, and is that the direction we want to go in?

We're going to go ahead and get "dramatic": a ban on social media is wrong-headed on every level. It's morally unjustifiable, practically unworkable and utterly unnecessary.

How are politicians getting it wrong?

Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday told parliament that the government would consider blocking Twitter, Facebook and BBM in the wake of the riots. Home secretary Theresa May is set to meet with social media bosses to discuss the government's concerns.

It's good to get input from the companies and services in question, but seriously, hasn't the home secretary got better things to do in the aftermath of one of the worst cases of civil disorder England has seen for years? The shocking unrest of the past week has its roots in many causes that require tackling, but none of them can be solved simply.

Casting about desperately for a simple scapegoat, the authorities seem to have setted on social networks to fill that role, hoping that a ban on Facebook or BlackBerry will look like decisive action to those who don't understand the technology. It's a short-sighted, knee-jerk attempt to engineer a quick fix for a problem that simply can't be solved quickly.

Why is banning social media the wrong approach?

Twitter, Facebook and BBM are simply channels. It's the people misusing them who must be targeted, not the services themselves. No-one would suggest closing the Royal Mail if a letter bomb was sent in the post -- instead the culprit would be tracked down. And meanwhile the other 99 per cent of the population would continue enjoying using the post as normal.

Even if we could see some moral justification for blocking these services, it's unworkable on a practical level. Contract phones can be blocked, but anyone can buy a pay as you go phone. If blocked from a particular service it's the work of a moment to set up a new account or use a different service. Blocked from BBM? Get a PAYG phone. Send a text message instead. Barred from the Web? Nip out to an Internet café.

Besides, even if such measures were morally or practically sound, they're unnecessary. We already have the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which requires communications companies to hand over messages to police if suspected of pertaining to a crime, subject to a court order. BlackBerry has already committed to assist police in the wake of the riots.

Individuals can also be prevented from using particular communication tools: a number of individuals suspected of being members of the LulzSec group of hackers have been banned from the Internet while awaiting trial. It's already possible to throw the book at someone for a tweet, as Twitter joke trial defendant Paul Chambers knows all too well.

Meanwhile, positive uses of social media abound, from impromptu riot cleanups to police uses of Twitter.

Do you think it's acceptable -- or practical -- for governments to restrict communications in times of crisis? Or are we hand-wringing liberals? Exercise your right to free speech in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.