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On The British Government's Study of Banning Criminal Suspects From Social Media

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, August 11 2011

The British government believes it may be able to prevent the kind of destruction that happened to the Croydon building pictured above during recent riots by banning suspected criminals from social media. Photo: Peter G. Trimming / Flickr

The Guardian looks to have been the first to report that British Prime Minister David Cameron has said his government is exploring the possibility of excluding suspected criminal conspirators from social media services.

It's probably a colossal waste of time, but before we get to that, here's the text of Cameron's prepared remarks:

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.

I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.

On to the waste-of-time part. There are, to be sure, many things to say about Cameron's statement as it pertains to free speech and freedom of expression, and there's a great round-up of those opinions over at The Atlantic Wire.

BlackBerry Messenger and Twitter — which, by the way, are being used for clean-up as well as whatever criminal activity people allegedly plotted by phone — were called out particularly during the riots, but they are just two services among many. Twitter, for its part, has indicated a refusal to cooperate with efforts to shut down the service or any specific account — but wouldn't comment on whether or not it was providing information about its users to authorities. BlackBerry vendor Research In Motion has indicated it will cooperate with British authorities, but it's not clear exactly how.

Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger aside, there is an ever-longer list of services that provide real-time messaging — and even tools designed specifically to circumvent state intervention in mobile communications or Internet use. If Cameron's goal is to prevent criminals from being able to talk to one another, he's entering into territory that is becoming more and more difficult to navigate by the day.

"Of course, then there is WhatsApp that is as good or better a group messenger app than BBM and it works on BB, [iPhone] and Android," Katrin Verclas of MobileActive wrote to me in an email earlier this week, during a conversation about a British lawmaker's call to shut down BlackBerry Messaging service during the riots. "So are they going to shutdown all IP traffic? This is silly."

From your Android phone, you could also use a suite of tools designed to make it difficult for the state to monitor or curtail your Internet activity, including real-time chat. In fact, the U.S. State Department funds development of other tools designed specifically to make it difficult for a government to shut down access to the Internet, in the name of free speech and free flow of communication.

And so it is that the dedicated activist — or criminal — has an ever-growing suite of tools at his disposal to communicate with his colleagues in real-time. It is simply getting harder and harder to stop people from talking with one another, for good or ill.