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Two weeks after David Cameron’s speech, British officials met last Thursday with representatives of Research in Motion, Facebook and Twitter to discuss ways to control or limit social media in order to resist violence and turmoil in the streets.
The government’s home minister, Theresa May, said that the goal behind the meeting was not to restrict social media, but instead “crack down networks being used for criminal behaviour”. The discussions in the meeting revolved around allowing more power to law enforcement to have access to data from these networks in order to fight back any possible organized riots.
In earlier statements, Research in Motion, the developer of BlackBerry, expressed its will to cooperate with local telecommunication operators, law enforcement and the British government. The company agreed to provide the British police information from the BlackBerry Messenger network.
Gordon Scobbie, a senior police officer who attended the meeting, suggested that Twitter could assist the police by compelling users to use their real names instead of nicknames. In a reply to this, Sean Garrett, a Twitter spokesman, said that Twitter was not considering requiring real names, insisting that the meeting was not a negotiation.
Meanwhile, Facebook said that it had already deleted certain groups, and had removed accounts created under fake identities. The company further emphasized that its social network was used in a positive way by Britons reacting to riots, including clean ups by residents in many neighborhoods.
Cameron’s initial suggestion seemed to be absent at Thursday meeting, as May informed social networks that the government had no intention of restricting Internet services.
Facebook, Twitter and other public sites on the Internet played a crucial role in linking many social movements in the Arab world, and leading them towards systematic change. However, the restriction and control of the Internet in Tunisia did not help in keeping the old regime in power. In Egypt, turning off the Internet for four days was a motive to enrage passive citizens to go out to protest.
Banning Internet use in the UK could have been a fatal step and could have worsened the situation even more. On the one hand, the action would undermine the credibility of the country as an ancient democracy, and as a promoter of liberties in the third world. On the other hand, taking such actions would encourage regimes that have been criticized by the West for limiting freedoms to further sustain their control over the media.