Britain's PM considers social media ban to curb riots

Cameron says ban might inhibit those plotting violence, looting

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday he is considering a ban on social networking to help curb the riots that have rocked the country.

Speaking to the nation's House of Commons, Cameron said he is working with Scotland Yard and U.K. intelligence agencies to put an end to the rioting and looting that has shaken London and other British cities. And one tactic under consideration is trying to prevent rioters from using social media, which has reportedly been used to coordinate criminal activity.

"Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," Cameron said Thursday. "And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them."

Cameron did not say how they would stop social media use but did say it was being investigated as a possibility.

"So 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," the prime minister said.

The riots began this past Sunday night and were provoked by police shooting and killing a 29-year-old man.

Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger, reportedly have been used largely by British youth to post inflammatory messages intended to fuel the rioting and looting. It's also been reported that social media has been used to organize illegal efforts.

London police have said they are working to track down people who used Blackberry's Messenger service to fuel the rioting. Blackberry maker Research In Motion has vowed to help police in their efforts.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with Yankee Group, said while it may be a good idea to limit people's spreading inflammatory messages or organizing riots and looting, he couldn't envisage how the British government could logistically shut down access to social networks.

"I can't see how a democratic nation like the U.K. can ban social networking," said Kerravala. "And frankly, I have no idea how the U.K. would do that. There are so many Internet entry points between the various ISPs and mobile operators that it would be almost impossible for them to do it."

He added that the government could order all ISPs in the country to block access to some sites, but users could easily get around that with a smartphone from France, for instance.

"I could see how this would help since social networking can be used to fuel a burning fire," said Kerravala. "Social networking rioters can post very quickly where they will be and what time to riot... But doing something anti-democratic isn't the right solution. Businesses wouldn't have access if the government did that."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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