Officials from Twitter, Facebook and Research in Motion met with British Home Secretary Theresa May, in an effort to combat the criminal use of mobile phones during and after crises like the recent London riots.
The discussions were characterized as exploratory, with the government saying it “did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks,” according to a statement. This clarification may smooth over some of the controversy sparked by Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion to limit social networking in the wake of the unrest when he said, “When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”
Prior to the meeting, Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion all declined to say what position they would take in the talks, which included the country’s top law enforcement officials as well.
Earlier this month, Scotland Yard’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh confirmed officers were looking at Twitter, other social media and websites as part of an investigation into several nights of rioting and looting in and around London.
In response to the riots, British courts recently sentenced two men for Facebook postings which reportedly incited people to riot in their English hometowns.
The same judge sentenced both young men, admonishing them that by trying to incite violence and taking “advantage of crime elsewhere,” they caused a real strain on local police resources. They could have been sentenced to 10 years each, but got the shorter four-year sentence because until the Facebook incidents, they did not have criminal records.
It’s not just the British police that are watching social media sites for criminal activities. The New York Police Department earlier this week said it formed a new unit to search social media as part of its law enforcement efforts to respond to criminals’ growing use of these sites in planning and celebrating illegal activities.
And in San Francisco, public safety officials recently closed train stations in an effort to control continuing demonstrations over a previous transit authority’s decision to block mobile communications, in attempts to circumvent a protest gaining momentum from mobile social media.
BART’s chief spokesman defended the cell phone blackout, saying it prevented a potentially disruptive protest. But Johnson’s decision has drawn fire ever since, ironically causing three protests where he sought to prevent one in the first place.
The English Home Secretary maintains a distinction that social networking “is not a cause of the recent disturbances but a means of enabling criminals to communicate.” But in a debate where even the finest of differences can have a big impact on the average citizen’s privacy or the public’s safety, government and law enforcement, social media innovators may be well advised to tread thoughtfully.