Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion agreed to participate in a meeting coordinated by U.K. officials about the role social media played in riots earlier this month.
The level of the group’s participation may vary, depending on the direction the talks with U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May take, with a Twitter spokesperson saying tentatively, “We’d be happy to listen.”
Facebook, Twitter and RIM’s participation in the talks puts the tech giants on the slippery slope of trying to assist in restoring calm and civility while simultaneously ensuring their users’ confidence and privacy. Their services have played a part in the growing public safety problems as users organize and coordinate via RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger and social media, but it remains to be seen how much they will enable authorities to enable monitoring of private communication.
Scotland Yard’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh confirmed officers were looking at Twitter and other digital media as part of an investigation into several nights of rioting and looting in London. Some rioters may have been acting in response to a police shooting earlier this month, which resulted in the death of Mark Duggan of Tottenham, a multi-ethnic neighborhood in London.
A “Rest In Peace” Facebook page dedicated to the young man posted inflammatory remarks about police, and after rioters burned a bus Saturday evening, the page encouraged the public to upload pictures or videos of the event. Facebook has since removed the page.
As the riots raged on, police noticed a growing number of tweets suggested targeting a neighboring carnival, and abruptly cancelled the event.
Other sources indicate rioters used RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger’s encrypted messaging service to provide cover for those planning revenge. BBM allows users to send one-to-many messages that are often untraceable by authorities.
Member of Parliament David Lammy asked RIM to shut down BBM services in London as agitators continued using it to organize looting and burning gatherings.
“This is one of the reasons why unsophisticated criminals are outfoxing an otherwise sophisticated police force,” he tweeted. “BBM is different as it is encrypted and police can’t access it.”
As the dust began to settle after the looting, burning and other mob behavior, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament the government was examining a proper response to the troublemakers’ use of social media and other digital communication tools.
“When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them,” Cameron said. “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.”