Social Media block for potential criminals threatens UK government

Social networks have been blamed for the rioting seen in London and across various UK cities, with the UK Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting that the government is exploring the possibility of blocking access to such methods of communication if users are believed to be plotting criminal behavior. Speaking at a hastily convened parliamentary sitting, a full transcript of which is already online, Cameron conflated encrypted instant messaging tools like BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in what quickly became a push to clamp down on their potential for misuse.

"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" Cameron suggested, "when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality." The riots – which began as peaceful protest over the death of a young man in London, but which escalated to include vandalism and looting in a number of locations across the UK – were in part organized and publicized over BBM. "Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill" Cameron argued, "and when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them."

Suggesting that it would assist the UK security services with their enquiries prompted headaches for RIM earlier in the week, when hackers broke into the company's official blog and threatened to leak a database of employee details if BlackBerry users' info was revealed. RIM has built a reputation on its no-nonsense attitude to encryption and privacy, risking its service being blocked in India, Indonesia and elsewhere for refusing to open a back-door into users' conversations and messages for security services to monitor.

This new angle by the UK government arguably shows a naivety in understanding exactly what "social media" comprises, as well as ignoring the potential Twitter and other networks have demonstrated for positive reaction, such as the "clean up" squads organized in some cases simultaneously with the rioting going on. How, exactly, "potential criminals" will be singled out and isolated has not been made clear.

Is "social media" to blame for the UK riots? Should RIM shut down BBM when it's a known communication channel for violent criminals? Or is this a case of blaming the medium and not the message? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

[Image credit: Matt Hurst]