Comment: Social media deserves proper parliamentary attention

Last month's riots highlight the substantial difficulty of balancing citizens' safety with a free and open new media.

By Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

As a nation we like to believe that the UK has a proud history of opposing censorship and surveillance and criticising countries that interfere with their citizens' means of communication and media outlets.

The truth is a bit muddier and it has been further muddied by the post 9/11 latitude that was given to surveillance in order to counter the terrorist threat. It has also been complicated by the very rapid technological advances in communication methods between citizens.

Parliamentarians need to make an informed judgement on what must be done to ensure a reasonable balance between safeguarding citizens from illegal acts and maintaining a free flow of new media traffic. The law is clearer on the interception of telephone calls or opening of letters. Whilst it is easy to see what is publicly posted on Twitter or Facebook, private messaging facilities are not open to all.

What exactly is covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) is unclear. It is hard to see how interception of communications about the riots could be done lawfully when a signed warrant from the home secretary is required.

This warrant has to name or describe one person as the interception subject, or a single building at threat. It is uncertain how this could be applicable when there are hundreds of individuals engaged in a riot.

In the aftermath of last month's riots the sort of discussions that the government was having with the police, intelligence agencies and the owners of social media sites was something I felt we should know more about. Thus I asked the following in the House of Lords: "What steps [do the government] intend to take concerning the use of social networking sites during periods of civil unrest?"

The minister of state for the home office (Baroness Browning) responded: "Following the recent riots, the home secretary held a constructive meeting with Acpo, the police and representatives from the social media industry.

"Companies have made clear their commitment to removing illegal content and, when appropriate, closing accounts, whether at the request of the police or because of a tip-off from others. It was agreed to step up co-operation to ensure that these processes are working effectively.

"The government are committed to a free and open internet, and we are not seeking additional powers to close down social media networks."

I actually find this reply worrying rather than reassuring. Social media sites may be able to do a reasonable job of spotting the illegal. But should we leave it to them to form a judgement about what is suspicious and what is not? How far should we allow control of our communications to be a two way conversation between the police and site owners? Should the closing of an account be something that can happen 'just like that'? What appeal mechanism is in place? These are some of the pressing questions that parliament needs to address in more detail.

I am very concerned about striking a balance between an open uncensored new media and one that remains as free as possible of illegal content. That should be an open and accountable process, not one decided behind closed doors by the owners of social media networks, the police and the home secretary.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer has been a Liberal Democrat life peer since 1998.

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