Representatives from Facebook and Twitter will be meeting with RIM and the UK government this week, as officials try to piece together how large a role social media and mobile messaging solutions played in organizing rioters and looters in the chaos that swept London streets recently.
(Despite RIM’s seriously slacking pace in the mobile arms race, BlackBerry Messenger was reportedly the tech tool most popularly used by participants in the London riots.)
We've confirmed the meeting to be taking place this Thursday, August 25.
The influence of social media and mobile in riots and rebellions has been tracked for years, with the Arab Spring revolutions in early 2011 bringing the topic to the very forefront. Until the London riots struck this month, however, censorship had not really been considered a viable option in Western states. That could change:
"Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” said UK Prime Minister David Cameron last week. “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.”
"And 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.”
In spite of all the violence, however, activists believe that basic rights like freedom of speech need to be respected even to their extremes. A staff member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to defending these rights in the digital age, describes the position here:
EFF urges Facebook, Blackberry, and Twitter to fight for the rights of their users. In large part, this means refusing to censor speech, protecting users' data unless compelled to do otherwise by law, and informing users if their data is sought by the government. But the companies' hands may be tied if Cameron takes advantage of hysteria over the riots to pass shortsighted legislation meant to protect Britons from the so-called “misuse” of social media.
The conversation this week is expected to be just that... a conversation. Policy changes could potentially come further down the line, but we’re not at that stage yet.
Here’s Facebook’s official statement on the matter:
We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK at this challenging time. In recent days we have ensured any credible threats of violence are removed from Facebook and we have been pleased to see the very positive uses millions of people have been making of our service to let friends and family know they are safe and to strengthen their communities.