Social media 'safe' from riots shutdown

Social media sites were used to coordinate the disorder seen last month
Social media sites were used to coordinate the disorder seen last month

By Alex Stevenson

Ministers will not seek additional powers to shut down social media websites in the event of future riots, the Home Office has confirmed.

A source clarified the position after London mayor Boris Johnson and acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin offered contradictory statements on the government's thinking in evidence to the Commons' home affairs committee earlier.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were used by rioters to coordinate the disorder, prompting calls for them to be temporarily shut down until the violence had subsided.


A Home Office source made clear that it would not seek extra powers to enforce a suspension of social media services to be used in the event of future rioting. The department is refusing to rule out an outright ban at some stage in the future, however.

Mr Godwin was asked by committee chair Keith Vaz whether he felt the option of shutting down social media websites, a move he had backed two weeks ago, was still viewed as being viable.

"I'm sure it isn't off the agenda for the Home Office and for this House," the Met acting commissioner said.

"For me... the fact it is a useful communication tool for us to get our messages out [meant that] on reflection we felt it would have been net negative to turn it off. We are looking at how we can use [social media sites] in terms of intelligence."

Mr Johnson made clear he opposed calls for extra powers controlling social media sites.

"The loss of civil liberties was not going to be compensated for by a gain in security," he said.

"I think that has been persuasive with the Home Office, and that's where we are... this is not seen as a clear benefit from the police, and therefore I'm not disposed to support it."

David Cameron had told MPs when parliament was recalled that he was prepared to consider banning suspected rioters from social media.

"Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," the prime minister said on August 11th.

"When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. 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."

Social media industry representatives successfully persuaded Ms May, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne on August 25th that powers for a total shutdown would not be needed.

The meeting focused on ways in which they could cooperate with law enforcement agencies in the future, the Home Office said at the time.
"The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour," a spokesperson said.

More meetings between government and social media figures are expected to take place in the future.

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