UK Government Wants Police Empowered To ‘Close’ Twitter, BBM

The UK’s Home Secretary will meet media and social media companies regarding blocking access during emergency situations, in the wake of England’s mass looting this week.

Prime Minister David Cameron is also inviting police chiefs to tell him that they require the power to “close” services including Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, the latter of which is this week being credited with having helped looters coordinate raids.

“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,” Cameron said during a session in the House Of Commons, which had been recalled from its summer recess to debate, and in scripted comments. “When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”

Cameron’s call will give chills to even conservative techno-libertarians, who are already complaining about it. Although the issue appears to be a balance between – on the one hand – preventing theft, assault and criminal damage and – on the other – keeping Twitter open for onlookers to react, one tech writer calls the Prime Minister “stupid“. If enacted, it would move the UK closer to rules in some Middle East countries, which exercise a degree of control of BBM for instance.

Several arrests have been made of people who are suspected of, using social media, inciting criminal activities.

Police already have power to instruct mobile networks to take down coverage in spot areas to guarantee communications traffic during emergencies, as happened during London’s 7/7 bombings.

Enacting blocks on Twitter appears far more challenging. Indeed, Cameron’s may be more bravado than believable. It is a response to police complaints about the ease with which some could coordinate lootings, rather than the root cause of that behaviour…

But it may be a showy and hard-hitting opening gambit designed to win the services’ further voluntary support without need for new legislation or police power. The non-specificity of his language suggests he generally wants something done, but it’s not clear what, if anything, this will really lead to.

Cameron acknowledged that citizens used Twitter to mobilise community clean-ups as well as for “ill”.

He also said he wants social media services to be limited from posting videos of violence. Cameron has, however, watched such videos – earlier in the debate, he lamented the robbery seen in this one…