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Facebook riot pair get four years in prison

A judge has well and truly thrown the book at two men who used Facebook to stir up trouble in last week's riots. Is the sentence too harsh?

A judge has well and truly thrown the book at two men who used Facebook to stir up trouble in last week's riots. The pair were jailed for four years each for creating Facebook pages that called for others to join in with rioting and looting -- harsher sentences than many who actually went out and smashed, burned and looted our cities.

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan both pleaded guilty to intentionally encouraging another to assist the commission of an indictable offence under the Serious Crime Act.

Sutcliffe-Keenan removed his Warrington Riot page the next day and apologised. Blackshaw created a Facebook event called 'Smash down in Northwich Town', calling for the 'Mob Hill Massive Northwich Lootin'' to meet up for a spot of rioting. Criminal mastermind Blackshaw turned up at the meeting point "behind Maccies" and was indeed met by a group of testy chaps looking for trouble: the police.

Incite unseen

The pair were jailed for four years by Judge Elgan Edward at Chester Crown Court. The maximum possible sentence is 10 years. Both the judge and the assistant chief constable of Cheshire police emphasised that the stiff sentences are meant to deter others from misusing technology such as Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger as a swathe of tough sentences are passed down to anyone arrested in connection with the riots.

We're fully behind throwing the book at those who incited violence and caused panic in areas that were actually unaffected by the disorder, but is it right that the Cheshire pair drew some of the harshest sentences, despite not carrying out any physical damage or theft?

More than 1,000 alleged offenders have passed through courts, with more than 700 now behind bars. Crimes that have drawn stiff sentences include a student jailed for six months for stealing a bottle of water, a mother of two jailed for five months for accepting a looted pair of shorts, and a homeless man who stole food. A sweet-toothed looter who stole an ice cream cone but gave it away because he didn't like it is awaiting sentencing.

Bobbies on the BBM beat

Scotland Yard's acting commissioner Tim Godwin told the Guardian this week that police were able to react to inciting messages by checking BlackBerry Messenger on the phones of those who had already been arrested.

The boys in blue also considered shutting down Twitter during the rioting, but quickly realised "the legality is questionable, very questionable". Godwin said police were not currently asking the government for extra powers to shut down social media -- while MPs including Louise Mensch and David Lammy, representative of Tottenham where the rioting started, call for temporary shutdowns of social networks.

That's clearly the wrong approach: it's impractical, it's authoritarian, it's unnecessary under current legislation -- and surely we can't follow the lead of totalitarian regimes such as the overthrown Egyptian dictatorship.

Blocking sites also ignores the fact that the vast majority of people using Facebook, Twitter and the like were looking for information, keeping in touch with those affected, and spreading positive messages such as the Riot Clean-up movement, pictured above.

Riot or wrong?

Targeting the minority that used social networks to incite disorder is the right approach -- as opposed to targeting the networks themselves. Should courts send a message with tough sentences, or is four years an excessive punishment? Meet us behind Maccies and tell us your thoughts, or just stick them in the comments section below, or on our orderly, responsible Facebook page.