Cameron’s social media clampdown comes up against reality

By Ian Dunt

Technology experts have poured cold water on government plans to crack down on social media sites during riots.

David Cameron announced plans to prevent the use of social media in the event of disorder and criminality in his response to the riots yesterday.

"When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them," he said.

"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."

Many rioters used Blackberry instant messenger and, according to some sources, Twitter, to organise during the riots in the early part of this week.

Journalists also used social media to give the public information about where to avoid, however, and the following day thousands of people took to Twitter to organise community clean-up operations.

Blackberry offered the government support in helping to end the riots and Facebook agreed to take down several posts.

Tory MP Louise Mensch prompted anger on Twitter when she appeared to back Mr Cameron's plans.

"Common sense," she tweeted. "If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. World won't implode."

Technology experts have warned that the government would only be able to secure its objective by banning individuals from social media, closing off social media sites or shutting down the internet in a given location.

The first option requires every social media firm to cooperate with the government. Even if that were achievable, individuals would still be able to create a new account.

The second option is often adopted in China but is readily side-stepped by those familiar with social media while the final option – to shut down a whole region's internet access – would be so drastic and far-reaching that it would require highly controversial new powers to implement.

Even then, actual use of the power could create immense anger in the online community, threaten innocent users and raise serious questions about freedom of speech.