Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Twitter, Facebook and RIM play down role in riots

Tim Bradshaw Financial Times ,Thursday, Sep. 15, 2011 11:28AM EDT
Social media played a minimal role in August’s riots and violent disorder, representatives from Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion told MPs on Thursday. Such means of communication should not be shut down during future emergencies, they argued.
The social networks, including BlackBerry Messenger, were in the aftermath of the riots blamed by some, including the prime minister, David Cameron, for helping individuals to organize or publicize criminal activity.

One Facebook user has been jailed for four years for using the site to incite violence.
Appearing before the Home Affairs select committee, the three technology companies insisted that there was limited evidence for such organization on their networks.
“Communications generally and social media is a force for good,” said Stephen Bates, RIM’s U.K. managing director.
Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, said that it would be an “absolutely horrible idea to suspend service during those times”.
Mr. Bates agreed: “We don’t see that being a good way forward.”
Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of public policy in Europe, said there were only a “handful of cases” where the site was used to organize criminal activity. Preventing law-abiding citizens from telling friends and family of their whereabouts in a crisis would “not serve the public interest”, he added. The companies acknowledged that legal powers did exist to force them to co-operate with the authorities, even if that meant shutting down temporarily. “As a service provider you never would advocate for your service to be made unavailable,” said Mr Allan.
“You might be understanding if that were to happen,” he added, but only with a “very high threshold of necessity and proportionality”, with “checks and balances” to avoid situations such as Syrian and Egyptian protests where governments blocked networks on a whim.
RIM and Facebook said they had worked with police to pass information about offenders, as they are obliged to do under the regulation of investigatory powers act. But Twitter said it had “nothing currently ongoing” with the police after some initial communication.
“[For] the police and everyone else, it’s a public thing - they can just go get it from the website, there is nothing that they need from us,” said Mr. Macgillivray, who flew over from Twitter’s California headquarters for the hearing.
“We have not found, because our service is public, that it’s a good tool for organizing criminal activity. We have not found in this case examples”, said Mr. Macgillivray, “of the service being used for organisation of illegal activity”.
All three technology companies said it was impossible to tell whether social media had increased or decreased the amount of disorder and emphasized that it could be used in a positive as well as harmful way. Police forces were using social networks to contact citizens, updating them with accurate information during the riots and putting down false rumours, as well as updating the media.
Mr. Allan said the police needed to “catch up” with the new technology, as they did when burglars first started to use cars to make their getaways.
“There clearly is a novelty factor,” he said. “The police took some time to catch up with the motorised villain and now they need to create new mechanisms to catch up with social media.”
Earlier in Thursday’s select committee hearing, chief constable Chris Sims, of the West Midlands Police, told MPs that there was an “awful lot of noise” from social media, which would have misleadingly suggested that “every single building in Birmingham was on fire”.
There were “periods when it was unhelpful,” he said. “There were also moments when social media were incredibly positive.”
Mr. Sims added that traditional media coverage of the riots exacerbated some of the problems.
“In the 24-7 news world, the constant looping of images of burning buildings” provided a context “of uncertainty, fear and disorder”. The police were left “trying to deal with some of the consequences of that,” he said

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