Yesterday, Home Secretary Theresa May met with representatives of Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger and the police in a widely-reported get-together to discuss the rights and responsibilities of the users of social networks, and the rights and responsibilities of the networks themselves, in times of civil disorder.
If you take some newspaper headlines at face value, you’d think the very fabric of freedom of speech had been under threat by a government hell bent on shutting down such social networking services – all communication tools used for good and bad during the England riots of a few weeks ago.
“Cameron ditches his pledge to shut down Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry during riots,” was the Daily Mail’s headline today. “Ministers back down over Facebook blackout for trouble-makers,” proclaimed the Telegraph. And “Government backs down on plan to shut Twitter and Facebook in crises,” said the Guardian.
I’m hard-pressed to find a record of any politician talking about actual plans to shut down such social networking channels. Certainly, the mainstream media seems to have interpreted David Cameron’s speech to the House of Commons on August 11 as plans. And if you read the reports in each of those newspapers, they bear little connection to the dramatic headlines.
In any case, yesterday’s discussion seems to have been pretty level headed with a good outcome and much common sense reportedly in evidence.
This, for instance, as reported by the Mail:
[…Theresa May] told the firms that she was not there to talk about restricting internet services. Instead Mrs May appealed for help, seeking advice on how law enforcement could more effectively use social media. Social networking firms are said to have advised police to employ internet monitoring firms to help keep an eye on public chatter on the web.
The Telegraph says:
[…] the discussions looked at how law enforcement can more effectively monitor the networks for criminal material and have it removed under existing arrangements. A Home Office spokesman said afterwards: “The Government did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks.” […] A spokesman for Research In Motion (RIM), which makes BlackBerry, [said] the meeting had been “positive and productive.”
And the Guardian had this:
[…] According to sources at the meeting, police acknowledged that they “needed to do more” with regard to learning how to use social media. The Metropolitan police are understood to have said they were “slightly behind” other forces when it came to Twitter and Facebook.
[…] A spokeswoman for Facebook said the discussion was constructive, building on work her firm already did to ensure Facebook was “one of the safest places on the internet”. She said: “We welcome the fact this was a dialogue on working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing restrictions on internet services.” A Twitter spokeswoman said: “Governments and law enforcement agencies around the world use Twitter to engage in open, public, communications … we’ve heard from many that Twitter is an effective way to distribute updates and dispel rumours in times of crisis or emergency.”
So a focus on helping the police and others understand how to use social networking tools and channels more effectively, working with and learning from those social networks and others.
The final word from Nick Clegg reported in the Telegraph:
[…] let’s not forget that during the riots, social media was very helpful to lots of people in finding out what was going on and in bringing communities together.”