Why a post-riot social media crackdown is doomed to fail

Steve Ranger's Notebook: And why it would be a nightmare for all if it worked...

The government must think carefully about any plans to "disrupt" social networks, says silicon.com's Steve Ranger.

Following claims that criminals used social media to plan their activities during the riots across England this week, the government has decided it is time to do something. Quite what that something is, however, remains to be seen.

In his statement to the House of Commons, which has been recalled to discuss the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. 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."

It's an understandable stance. Police have warned that social media is being used by criminals to plan their activity, so the government wants to be seen to act. A chunk of this is pure politics, too - it's much easier to blame technology, and promise to ban people from it, than to fix the deep societal problems at the root of the rioting.

London riotcleanup on Twitter

Social media such as Twitter played a crucial role in the aftermath of the UK riotsImage: Twitter/silicon.com

But it is quite possible to ban an individual from using computers or phones, or from contacting particular people. Such orders are handed down to those suspected of internet-related crimes, for example, and extending such bans to cover social media would be pretty easy, if unnecessary - if you can't use a PC or a phone, it's pretty hard to see how you could get on BBM or Twitter. So far, so good.

But I'd be concerned if plans went any further than that. Yet already sources have told Reuters that the government is looking at ways to "disrupt" social networks and messaging systems in times of unrest.

I struggle to imagine a scenario where it would be a good idea to switch off Twitter or Facebook - or even, for what it's worth, LinkedIn - in the middle of a crisis.

Of course, a tiny minority of users may be using social media for evil, but in many cases it should be very easy to track down those criminals because of the hard-to-erase digital footprints they will leave behind them.

In a time of crisis the rest of us are increasingly...

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...