Amid continuing rioting in multiple cities across the U.K., British Prime Minister David Cameron said in Parliament that legislators should consider laws allowing officials to ban individuals from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, if there is a chance those individuals intend to use the sites to plot violence. Cameron's proposal, coming as thousands of British police attempt to reestablish order in blighted inner cities, acknowledges the central role played by social media in initiating, organizing, and spreading civil disorder -- but immediately drew criticism as a misguided over-reaction, which does nothing to address the real causes of the violence.
Cameron told lawmakers that home secretary Theresa May will meet with executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Research In Motion, which makes Blackberry devices, to determine the feasibility of a social media ban on miscreants. This could include banning individuals who have already used social media to plan violence, and constant monitoring of social media to spot (and preempt) new episodes of violence in the planning phases.
Cameron explained to Parliament: "Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. 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."
According to the Guardian, Scotland Yard has already arrested a number of people suspected of inciting violence via Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry devices. RIM's Blackberry Messenger service has been singled out as a particularly prominent tool for organizing violence, due to its wide popularity among British teens and young adults and the fact that it requires PIN codes, making it harder for police to monitor. Earlier this week the Guardian published some incriminating Blackberry messages blamed for incidents of violence, including one which read in part:
"Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot!"
However such a ban faces a number of obstacles, not least of which is the difficulty of positively identifying individuals to be banned, when people can easily use fake names and pictures to obscure their real identities. Live monitoring of social media will also be challenging because of the large number of individuals to be tracked and the ambiguities involved in interpreting messages (not to mention the real possibility that malefactors might begin using coded communications, or deliberately mislead police to draw them away from targeted areas).
Perhaps more important than these technical issues, the proposed ban was criticized by British lawmakers, pundits, and activists as a possible infringement of civil liberties. For example, there is a danger that a social media crackdown might inadvertently quash attempts to organize legitimate public protests -- a step which could conceivably push disaffected individuals over the line into violence yet again. There is also debate over the proper legal approach to banning suspected miscreants from social media, with civil liberties advocates insisting that police have to obtain a court order in each case -- a potentially time-consuming process that could make it harder to preempt violence before it begins.