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8/11/2011
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U.K. Prime Minister Floats BlackBerry, Twitter Crackdown

In the wake of the violent London riots, David Cameron has proposed limiting use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks in some cases.

U.K. prime minister David Cameron has suggested the idea of stifling the "free flow of information" on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook as a way to stymie and prevent the rioting that spread throughout the British isle over the last several days.

"Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," Cameron said in an address to Parliament Thursday. "And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them."

Cameron said the U.K. government is working with police, intelligence services, and industry to examine the possibility of preventing people from communicating via these websites and services "when we know they are plotting violence, disorder, and criminality." The BBC posted a video of the statement on its news website.

Riots spread from the London neighborhood of Tottenham, where they began Sunday night, not only to other sections of London, but also other U.K. cities, including Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, and Gloucester.

Rioters have been setting fire to cars, buses, stores, police stations, and even residential houses, as well as looting stores and committing other acts of violence that killed several people. The shooting of a 29-year-old Tottenham resident was the trigger for the riots, which by Thursday had mostly subsided.

Cameron and other officials believe technology has made the riots worse because rioters planned their activities by organizing via social media sites.

While this may be true, U.K. police also have used the sites to gain their own advantage over the rioters. London's Metropolitan Police, for instance, posted photos of suspected rioters on Flickr to crowdsource identification of people taking part in the unrest.

Standard policy at companies running websites or services that could provide helpful information for catching criminals is to comply with authorities in various countries if the proper legal means are taken to acquire information for them--i.e., subpoenas in the United States. However, Internet companies draw the line at outright censorship.

Cameron's comments once again bring up the thorny question of a government's authority to cut off access to the Internet or services to stifle unrest or unlawful behavior.

So far, precedence has not favored this type of government action. In late January former Egypt president Hosni Mubarak denied access to the Internet to people there to try to put down an uprising. He was unsuccessful and later fined 200 million Egyptian pounds, or $34 million, for the action.

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