The Independent View: Social media – no longer an easy target

Open Rights Group, alongside 9 other human right groups including Amnesty UK, Liberty and Index on Censorship, yesterday wrote to the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Theresa May MP. We were responding to the Prime Minister’s comments that the Government will “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”.

The letter was written to coincide with a meeting that took place at lunchtime yesterday between the Home Secretary and Twitter, Facebook and Research in Motion, to discuss what that might mean in practice.

In the letter, which can be read in full here, we say three things. First, we express serious concern about any such review of powers made in haste without proper consideration of the effects on legitimate communication, freedom of expression and privacy.

Second, that such reviews must take place transparently with details of the meetings with communications providers made public as soon as possible.

Third, that any such review must proceed through a genuine multi-stakeholder process, involving not only communications providers but groups such as those representing citizens’ rights such as freedom of expression and privacy.

Following the meeting, the Home Office appeared to back down on suggestions that they will look to powers to cut off access to communications networks. This is undeniably good news. Blocking access to the means to communication is an extreme measure that is reserved, usually, for more nefarious regimes than ours.

In principle giving the state greater powers to prevent people using the means to communicate with each other is worrying. And in practice, there is little evidence that simply cutting access would have prevented some of the unrest.

Many have commented that social networks played an extremely positive role through the unrest. They often helped people share news and updates about local areas more quickly than broadcast media could manage. They famously helped groups organise clean ups of affected areas. And yesterday morning the Guardian ran an analysis of tweets posted during the riots. It seems to show that tweets tended to follow or react to trouble, rather than playing a role inciting more of it.

Targeting communications networks in the aftermath of this civil unrest was simply the wrong target. Through the joint letter, and the Open Rights Group petition that has so far gathered over 3,500 signatures, hopefully we have helped demonstrate it is also not an easy target.

It is worth noting that there is a longer privacy game at play in these discussions. The previous Government’s plans to update interception and surveillance powers, under the name of the Intercept Modernisation Programme, disappeared but never died. There were some serious concerns at the time about how the police would be able to access Internet communications, and the reqirements for service providers to store such information.

In this coalition Government, which promised to row back on what many saw as intrusions into our liberties, the plans have resurfaced under the name Communications Capabilities Development programme. The Home Office website for the programme suggests that the programme is about ‘maintaining existing capabilities…not about developing new, more intrusive powers’. We hope that is the case, and that through an open and public debate we can play a role in keeping them to their word.

Peter Bradwell is a campaigner with the Open Rights Group.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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