Home secretary vs Twitter: Round one

By Ian Dunt

The Home Office said it had a "constructive" meeting with social media sites today, after suggestions it would press ahead with plans to shut them down during emergencies.

It is unclear whether the subject was raised at the meeting, which featured Theresa May, security minister James Brokenshire and representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion (RIM), the company which produces Blackberries.

"The home secretary, along with the culture secretary and Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne, has held a constructive meeting with ACPO [the Association of Chief Police Officers], the police and representatives from the social media industry," a spokesperson said.

"The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour.”

Media sources indicated that Ms May made no mention of plans to ban or censor the sites, despite several government statements to that effect since the riots earlier this month.

The meeting follows concerns about the use of social media by rioters.  The recent disorder in England saw gangs communicate predominantly via Blackberry messenger, a closed network which allows large groups to send information instantly.

With so many participants and just one-hour duration, the meeting was unlikely to result in major changes, but it was expected to lay out the terms in which future negotiations would take place.

Government plans to block suspects from social media or close down the networks in times of emergency have been roundly condemned online and triggered considerable international criticism.

Rebukes from authoritarian regimes such as China, which have previously been criticised by Britain for implementing similar policies, will have been particularly difficult for ministers to read.

A coalition of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Liberty and Privacy International wrote to the home secretary saying: "We are very concerned that new measures, made in good faith but in a heated political environment, will overextend powers in ways that would be susceptible to abuse, restrict legitimate, free communication and expression and undermine people's privacy."

Social media companies are thought to have argued that improved monitoring of their sites by law enforcement is the best way to police such events.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are expected to push for maintenance of the current arrangements, where messages that incite violence are taken down and reported to police. Two men are already facing four years in prison for inciting riots on Facebook.

Internet sites already have an obligation to disclose user's private messages if requested by police and take down material on the basis of a notice from authorities.

Ministers found they do not have the legal ability to switch off social media sites during the riots, however.

Meanwhile, a Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll showed that the three main parties were largely unaffected by the riots.

Satisfaction levels with the coalition stayed unchanged since last month, with 59% still unimpressed with the government's performance.

Labour and Conservative support stayed unchanged at 34% and 40% respectively, while Liberal Democrat support rose by four points to 15%.