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Summary:

Facebook and Twitter are preparing to face down UK government ministers over calls to ban people from social networks or shut their websites…

London Riots
photo: Getty Images / Dan Istitene

Facebook and Twitter are preparing to face down UK government ministers over calls to ban people from social networks or shut their websites down in times of civil unrest.

The major social networks are expected to offer no concessions when they meet the home secretary, Theresa May, at a Home Office summit on Thursday lunchtime.

Ministers are expected to row back on David Cameron’s call for suspected rioters to be banned from social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, following the riots and looting across England a fortnight ago.

The home secretary will explore what measures the major social networks could take to help contain disorder – including how law enforcement can more effectively use the sites – rather than discuss powers to shut them down. The acting Metropolitan police commissioner, Tim Godwin, and the Tory MP Louise Mensch have separately explored the idea of shutting down websites during emergencies.

The technology companies will strongly warn the government against introducing emergency measures that could usher in a new form of online censorship. Attacks on London landmarks, including the Olympics site and Westfield shopping centres, were thwarted earlier this month after police managed to intercept private BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) posts – suggesting that leaving networks running can provide a valuable source of intelligence and information.

The summit is not expected to signal a dramatic shift in government policy, with only one hour slated for a discussion between more than a dozen social media executives, police officers and ministers.

Executives from Facebook, Twitter and RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) will be joined by Lynn Owens, the assistant commissioner of central operations at the Met police, members of the association of chief police officers, and civil servants from both the foreign office and the department for culture, media and sport. The home secretary will lead the meeting, alongside James Brokenshire, the minister for security and a member of the National Security Council.

May will urge the social networks, all of which are based in either the US or Canada, to take more responsibility for the messages posted on their websites.

In response, Twitter and Facebook are expected to outline the steps that both social networks already take to remove messages that potentially incite violence. Facebook, which has 30 million users in the UK, said it had actively removed “several credible threats of violence” to stem the riots across England this month.

Research in Motion, the Canada-based BlackBerry maker, will explain to the government which parts of its popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service are private or encrypted. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, BBM is a pin-protected instant messaging system, and was claimed to be the most popular network among rioters.

Each of the social networks are preparing to explain how current powers are proportionate for tackling provocative material. Current measures allow internet companies to identify users who may be worth further investigation without examining the content of their messages.

RIM and other companies can be forced to disclose users’ private messages if served with a warrant by police.

Godwin told MPs on the home affairs committee last week that police had explored the unprecedented step of switching off social networks, but discovered that they did not have the legal powers to do so.

Under the current system, most websites take down material if served with “notice and takedown procedures” by authorities. Facebook also operates a self-policing method whereby its own users can flag inappropriate material.

Two leading police forces told the Guardian earlier this month that it would be a mistake to introduce overzealous powers over the websites. Greater Manchester police and the Devon and Cornwall force both said social networks had an “overwhelmingly positive” role in dispelling rumours and reassuring residents during the riots.

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This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.

  1. For the benefit of a peaceful
    society, we have relinquished our right to bare arms, we have placed favour on
    security from weaponry over security from tyranny. As potential for a police state
    grows ever closer with our civil rights being further impeded day by day, to
    give up what little protection we have by authorising the censorship and oppression
    of our freedoms of speech on our primary means of communication during times of
    emergency would see us grow ever closer to oppression.

    How can we live in a country that
    criminalizes an 80 year old man from peacefully protesting outside parliament,
    whilst it legal in most dictatorship regimes, as that has happened.

    How can we live in a country
    whereby 80 year old man, an MP, can be arrested under terrorism laws for
    speaking against our prime minister in his presence, as that has happened.

    A country where a foreign “suspect”
    can have a shoot to kill order against his head. An innocent unarmed man dies
    after being detained by armed police and shot point blank.

    Or a country with an impeccable
    record of cover-up and deceit in times of police brutality and murder. Black
    Friday, Steven Lawrance, Ian Tomlinson, Mark Duggan.

    The liberation of Lybia goes to
    show the power of good social networking can have against a corrupt and
    oppressive regime. Freedom of speech is our last line of defence against our
    views and rights being enslaved to those in power.

    How can vote out the corrupt, when
    the corruption flourishes in all parties; when not a single MP fights for our civil
    rights. Not a single MP veto’s an act that will see our rights to peaceful
    protest criminalised, for nothing more than the benefit of those in power. Or a
    parliament that thinks nothing of criminalising a citizen as a terrorist for
    portraying video police officers in their true form.

    What voice do we have when our
    voice means nothing. When our voice is restricted in times that it matters the
    most. What voice do we have when our voice goes ignored.

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