Executives from Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion have warned a committee of MPs that switching off social networks in times of civil unrest would be an “absolutely horrible idea”.
Representatives of Rim and the two social networks told a committee of MPs on Thursday that they had seen “no evidence” to suggest that their social media services had been used to coordinate the riots and looting, as David Cameron and senior Scotland Yard officers claimed in August.
Facebook and Rim revealed that they have handed information about alleged rioters to police officers investigating the disorder. Stephen Bates, the UK managing director of Rim, declined to say publicly whether the company had passed intercepted messages to authorities.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, the BlackBerry Messenger service is encrypted and its messages hidden from public view.
Executives told the home affairs select committee that social networks were a force for good, and that attempts to restrict the sites as in some Middle East states were “not proven to be a good idea”.
Alexander Macgillivray, the California-based general counsel for Twitter, said: “We think it’s an absolutely horrible idea to suspend [social networks] during important times.”
Richard Allan, the director of policy for Facebook in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, added that restricting the sites “would not serve the public interest”.
“We are extremely pleased that the home secretary has indicated that there is no intention to restrict internet services and we hope that position is sustained after this committee has concluded,” he said.
“Frankly, if we had found widespread evidence of [users organising riots] we would have said so, but we haven’t. Literally we found a handful of cases where people were doing things which were serious organisation as opposed to the good stuff or what you might call joke activity.”
Bates was forced to defend BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) from claims that the semi-private messagaing service played a key role in the riots.
Asked repeatedly whether the company felt it had a responsibility to tackle suspected rioters who used BBM, Bates stressed that Rim complies with UK legislation on interception communication.
“We felt that it was very important that were quick to respond to the authorities about lawful access. The position is very clear that we would meet the obligations and comply with the law,” he said.
“We saw many instances while the riots were happening where social media were used to check people were safe and they had got to places were they wanted to.”
Macgillivray, for Twitter, said that the site mistakenly gets “lumped in” with other social networks, but argued that it is “quite distinct” from Facebook or BBM “because people go there to say things publicly”.
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