Today a group of leading human rights and civil liberties groups, including Open Rights Group, have written to the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Theresa May MP. You can read the full letter, with the list of signatories, below.
Together we have expressed concerns about 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 coincides with a meeting taking place at lunchtime today between the Home Secretary and Twitter, Facebook and Research in Motion in which this issue will be discussed.
In it we say three simple 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.
We await the outcome of the Government's meeting with great interest. It is useful to note the Guardian's analysis this morning of tweets posted during the riots. It seems to show that tweets were mainly reacting to events, rather than playing a role inciting or organising further trouble.
Open Rights Group believes that the Government is focusing on entirely the wrong problem. Laws made in haste, with limited analysis and information, to deal with an exceptional problem is likely to create unbalanced laws and abuses of our rights.
Currently 3.5k people have signed our petition on this issue. You can join them here.
We will of course keep you posted on any response to the letter.
Update (16:00): The Home Office have said they held a 'constructive' meeting with Twitter, Facebook and RIM, 'discussing cooperation with law enforcement agencies in situations where networks are being used for criminal behaviour.'
Rt Hon Theresa May MP
2 Marsham Street,
London, SW1P 4DF
24th August 2011
Dear Home Secretary,
We are writing to you regarding discussions scheduled to take place between the Government and some social network and communications providers following the recent civil unrest.
We noted the Prime Minister's suggestion 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”. We believe that Twitter, Research in Motion and Facebook have been invited to meet you to discuss this issue.
As you know, there is existing legislation regulating the interception and disclosure of communications information, the use of communications evidence by law enforcement and restrictions on people's use of communications technology.
It is reasonable to review the existing legal regime to ensure that it appropriately fits new technologies. However, turning off, restricting or monitoring people's communications networks are matters that require extreme care and open, detailed deliberation.
We are very concerned that new measures, made in good faith but in a heated political environment, will overextend powers in ways that would be susceptible to abuse, restrict legitimate, free communication and expression and undermine people's privacy. This is especially so if proposals involve unaccountable voluntary arrangements between law enforcement and communications providers.
It is essential that any review of regulations covering communications networks happens through a public consultation, with full details of meetings between the Government and social network platforms made public as soon as possible. This should involve a genuine multi-stakeholder process that includes not only the communications providers but groups representing broader citizens' rights such as freedom of expression and privacy.
We would like to request a meeting to discuss these issues, and look forward to engaging with you further.
Brett Soloman, Executive Director, Access
Mike Blakemore, Media Director, Amnesty UK
Dr Agnes Callamard, Executive Director, Article 19
Gillian Slovo, President, English PEN
Andrew Puddephat, Director, Global Partners
Jo Glanville, Editor, Index on Censorship
Isabella Sankey, Policy Director, Liberty
Tony Curzon Price, Editor-in-Chief, OpenDemocracy
Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group
Simon Davies, Director, Privacy International