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August 11, 2011 | Jim Killock

Prime Minister's attack on social media unwarranted

Prime Minister David Cameron stated today that:

Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck 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.

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.

ORG has four broad concerns with attempts to create new powers to regulate social media and private communications.

One: Suspension of services

Some people have called for temporary suspension of services; David Cameron appeared to suggest suspension of Facebook and Twitter in some circumstances (TBC). We do not believe this should be given any serious consideration. Clearly, a service will be used by people for legitimate activities, some of which will in fact be to mitigate or deal with the problem encountered. In any case, innocent people should not be punished for the actions of others.

Two: suspension of user accounts

Telegraph blog today asks if the “tweets must flow” and concludes they should, as they lead to good results much more than bad.

We agree. It may be that, in exceptional circumstances, a court may order an account to be suspended, because it is being used for criminal activity, or to harass someone. However, the UK tends to prefer private arrangements between the police and private bodies. 

The coalition should resist calls for police powers or private arrangements for account suspensions. They represent the worst type of so-called “self-regulation” and could quickly lead to abuses. Courts protect us from this.

Three: security and privacy for users

MobileActive explains, in the context of the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, the security that Blackberry’s offer, and why oppressive governments are worried by it.

Blackberry and RIM offer some protection for most users, by scrambling communications in transit. Sometimes, they also allow end users to encrypt communications.

Governments have powers to request information from companies. Again, such powers need to be proportionate. Serious criminality should be suspected and requests should be made through courts. Currently RIPA has a purely administrative procedure, which does not require any judicial supervision, for traffic data. This is in our view open to abuse.

The content, however, may be regulated by Data Protection Act. This provides much weaker protection for end users, whose data is in any case governed by terms and conditions.

Perhaps even more dangerous would be any proposals that would seek to undermine our right to use personal encryption keys. Personal encryption keys can prevent companies and governments from decrypting and viewing the messages.

In the UK, it is an offence under RIPA to withhold your keys if they are needed to view material in a police investigation. Court orders are not required, and there are insufficient defences, which for example have led to mentally ill defendants being convicted for withholding keys.

Business, politics and free speech relies on security and privacy. David Cameron must be careful not to attack these fundamental needs because of concerns about the actions of a small minority.

Four: setting a bad example

The Telegraph reports the Chinese People’s Daily as saying:

The West have been talking about supporting internet freedom, and oppose other countries' government to control this kind of websites, now we can say they are tasting the bitter fruit [of their complacency] and they can't complain about it.

New measures to remove web freedoms of any sort will quickly be seized upon by oppressive governments to justify their own actions. The UK should not be using the same methods as governments in China, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.

Making laws in haste, with limited analysis and information, to deal with an exceptional problem is likely to create unbalanced laws and abuses of our rights.

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