As representatives from the big social networks prepare to meet the UK government about blocking rioters from their sites, silicon.com’s Nick Heath argues that this might be a situation where the best course is simply to do nothing at all.

Twitter, Facebook and RIM will meet ministers tomorrow to discuss restricting access to social networks in periods of civil unrest, such as during the riots that hit England earlier this month.

The technology companies will meet Home Secretary Theresa May and police to assess whether new measures are needed to prevent rioters colluding online.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Among the issues to be discussed is whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Theresa May social media meeting

Home Secretary Theresa May is meeting Facebook, Twitter and RIM to discuss the need for new measures to restrict rioters’ access to social mediaPhoto: Home Office

Social media has been in the dock for its role in exacerbating August’s disturbances – with reports that rioters in London were using BlackBerry Messenger to co-ordinate their movements and instances of Facebook being used to incite disorder.

Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s meeting, tech companies stressed the procedures they already have in place to police social networks, but would not comment on what new measures they would be willing to implement to curb illegal behaviour on their services.

RIM issued a statement saying it has “engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can”, while a Facebook spokeswoman said the social network had stepped up its efforts to remove “credible threats of violence” from the site in the days following the riots.

Unfortunately, the signs are there that the government is gunning for some new blunt-force measure that will probably fail to prevent social networks being used for illegal activity, but will cause collateral damage to legitimate users.

The reality is that the best course of action for May, Facebook et al would be to do nothing, and look to existing laws to control the use of social networks.

Most online services already remove offending material if served with a take-down notice by authorities – bypassing the need for any new regulation.

And history tells us that technical measures do a poor job of controlling human behaviour, as those determined lawbreakers will always find a work-around.

Look at Digital Rights Management (DRM) – the copyright protection software slapped on movies, music and other media to hamper piracy, which proved so ineffectual at tackling illegal file-sharing that it was eventually abandoned by Apple and the major music studios.

Just as music pirates sidestepped DRM, those determined to use social networks for criminality will find new communication channels away from prying eyes, bury their seditious threats under encryption or obscure their IP address to prevent identification.

Rather than censoring social networks, police would be…

 

…better off monitoring them for intelligence on troublemakers. Indeed, such an approach already proved its worth during the riots by tipping police off to a planned attack on the Olympics site.

The other more pernicious outcome of tomorrow’s meeting would be to sanction a more aggressive policing approach to social networks.

Obviously social networks need to be policed just like any other shared space off- or online. Few people would dispute the need to take action against the man who was given a four-month prison sentence for posting an invitation on Facebook for others to start a riot.

But if police start to criminalise statements on Facebook and Twitter more widely, then surely society runs the risk of censoring the free exchange of ideas that is supposedly the lifeblood of a modern democracy.

A heavy-handed approach to policing statements made through social networks risks having a chilling effect on public debate. Social networks are already falling foul of self-censorship as Twitter users hold back for fear of breaching their employer’s social media guidelines or unwittingly flouting the law.

The problem with heavy-handed regulation is that open social networks such as Twitter are a confusing blend of public and private forum – leading people to broadcast to the world the sort of off-colour remarks they would normally only share with their friends in the pub.

Just look at Paul Chambers, the man who found himself with a criminal conviction after making a statement about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in Nottingham on Twitter – an outburst that could best be described as foolish but hardly a statement of criminal intent. Would the country benefit from putting more people like Chambers through the courts?

When it comes to policing social networks, politicians and law enforcers need to acknowledge that society is in uncharted territory. Any regulation needs consultation and, if legislation is on the cards, debate in parliament.

The worst possible outcome of tomorrow’s meeting would be to rush through new restrictions on the use of social media and more stringent penalties for its misuse.

We’d be better looking at how existing laws can be more appropriately applied to police social networks and, if new legislation or regulation is necessary, to approach it with a delicate and carefully considered touch.