Cameron considers blocking Twitter, Facebook, BBM after riots

David Cameron has outlined plans to block suspected criminals from Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger, after riots across Britain.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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The government is to meet with Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry manufacturer RIM to discuss the role of technology in the recent riots -- and on the agenda is the possibility of banning troublemakers from using the companies' social-media services.

Big tipper David Cameron said in Parliament today that he wants to "give the police the technology to trace people on Twitter or BBM, or close it down".

The home secretary, Theresa May, will meet with social-media companies to discuss this week's horrifying scenes in London, Manchester and other cities around the country. The prime minister, who popped back from his holibobs to catch the tail-end of the riots, revealed the plans to Parliament today.

Parliament was recalled from its summer hols to discuss the recent riots, with Cameron stating there that "everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media". It wasn't the first thing that struck us as we watched cars and shops being set ablaze, but whatever.

Cameron noted that the "free flow of information can be used for good -- but it can also be used for ill". Much like any tool, then, such as a hammer or an expenses form.

Cameron went on to say: "And, when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them." Quite right -- stop the violence. "So 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."

Banning convicted or suspected miscreants from the Web is nothing new. Suspected LulzSec hackers have been banned from the Internet as they await trial. But blocking or shutting down services and websites more generally, as was rumoured would happen during this week's unrest, is a whole other cup of cappuccino. Tottenham MP David Lammy called for BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, one of the scapegoats for the disorder, to be turned off during the night

Phone networks are required by law to provide access to communications relating to the commission of a crime, and BlackBerry manufacturer RIM has pledged to assist police.

Hampshire police made the first arrests of ne'er-do-wells suspected of using BBM to incite trouble, while arrests have been made in Lancashire and Essex over inflammatory messages on Facebook. We wonder if incitement to violence includes those who took to Twitter and Facebook to call for water cannons and even soldiers to be deployed against rioters.

In the wake of the horrific scenes on the streets, examples have abounded of positive uses of social media. Communities have rallied to clean up, help victims and catch those who brought fear to our towns, with websites and online campaigns, including RiotCleanup, Something Nice for Ashraf and the Catch a Looter blog.

We'll keep you posted as we learn more. In the meantime, do you think Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry are to blame for the rioters' actions? Should the government have the power to shut social-media sites down? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.