Social networks aren't beyond the law. The police need to remember that

Steve Ranger's Notebook: There's more for the police on Twitter than just criminal intelligence...

Police don't need new powers to tackle social media, they just need a new attitude, says editor Steve Ranger.

Last week, in the aftermath of the English riots, there was much debate about banning social networks in times of strife: a ridiculous knee-jerk reaction which is sadly the standard response from some politicians when faced with new technology.

There are plenty of good arguments against this stance. Twitter and other social media services were tools used for good as well as evil during the riots, and giving anyone the right to switch them off would not only undermine freedom of expression, but also cut off the law-abiding population from information in the middle of a crisis, just when they need it most.


Police need to rethink their approach to social mediaImage: Twitter

In any case, police have already been keeping an eye on Twitter, Facebook and other networks to great effect, as they told MPs earlier this week. There should be no surprise at this - after all, the modus operandi of social media is collating information and making it easily accessible to all.

it also turns out that, while the police considered asking for some social media services to be switched off, they themselves decided it was too good a source of intelligence for that to actually happen.

While there was some criticism of the police for being slow to tackle the criminals who were using social media to organise, it was through their monitoring of such social networking tools that the Met was able to discover that rioters were discussing Westfield shopping centres, Oxford Street and the Olympic site as possible targets, and were thus able to prevent any such attacks taking place.

It's clear to me then that there is no need for any kill switch, or sweeping new powers for the police or the intelligence services - they are doing fine with social sites just as they are.

However, police still need to think carefully about how they approach social networks in future.

That doesn't mean Twixon of Dock Green needs to be patrolling my timeline, rather that police should use social media more to talk, and listen, to their community. Being visible in digital communities is just as important as quietly monitoring them.

Some forward-thinking forces were very good at dampening down some of the more outlandish rumours that pervaded Twitter during the riots, but they could still do more.

Social networks are becoming a standard way for people to communicate, especially in times of crisis, so the police should be willing to tap into that. It doesn't need to be heavy-handed actions. It's still down to us who we follow or add as a friend - but knowing that the police account is more than just an RSS feed of press releases would be reassuring to some, and perhaps a deterrent to others. I know I'd follow my local bobby on Twitter, which would give me far more direct contact with the local police than I've ever had until now.

As some of the aspects of our community migrate to online forums it should be no surprise that the police, a part of that society, come too.

Social networks are not beyond the law, no matter what some foolish rioters may think, but until now they have been forgotten by the law. That really needs to change.

Steve Ranger is the editor of and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, culture and business for over a decade. You can find him tweeting @steveranger.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think by posting a comment below.

By Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic. An award-winning journalist, Steve writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing tech issues. Previously he was th...