Leave social media alone: Why government's do-nothing riot policy is only good news

Kicking social media blocking plans into the long grass is the only smart thing to do...

The goverment has toned down its rhetoric around social networks. It's a sensible move, says silicon.com chief reporter Nick Heath.

Social networks got a pretty good bashing by politicians and the tabloids during the riots which swept England earlier this month, and yet a much-heralded summit between the members of the cabinet and Twitter, Facebook and RIM seems to have resulted in little concrete action from the government. And that's wise.

Keen to be seen to be taking strong action following two nights of destructive rioting that hit London earlier this month, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to examine whether troublemakers could be blocked from using socia media during times of unrest.

But following a meeting between Home Secretary Theresa May and Facebook, Twitter and RIM, all talk of extending control over social networks thankfully seems to have come to naught.

"The government did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks," a Home Office spokesman said of yesterday's summit.

"The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour."

It seems then summit resulted in a policy of 'keep calm and carry on'. Good - anything else would risk alienating the tens of millions of law-abiding social network fans.

What also seemed to emerge from the meetings was a feeling that police should actually be making better use of social networks as a source of intelligence - not seeking to shut them down at the first sign of trouble.

A statement by Facebook said that discussions revolved around how police could better use social networks to help their investigations - surely a much more sensible stance given how social media helped tip the Met off to a planned attack on the Olympics site during the riots.

In addition, an analysis by The Guardian newspaper, for example, of 2.5 million tweets made during the riots newspaper has found that the majority of them were actually posted by people simply following what was going on.

Of course, the summit between government and these social media companies was never likely to come to much. That was always the ideal outcome for the summit, and if the Home Office comes out of this with a better understanding of the the power and potential of social media that can only be a good thing.

And even if they don't understand something and can't control it (governments really hate that) politicians must be wary of portraying technology as the villain here. Hopefully the government has by now realised that social networks - and technology in general - shouldn't be found guilty by association, just because they were used by criminals.

Social media can be used to bring communities together or pull them apart, but it is not in itself the main trigger for either of these behaviours. As such politicians would be better off asking why there is a strata of society who feel they have so little to lose they are prepared to rip up their neighbourhoods - and not try to blame society's ills on the evils of social networks.