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No new social network banning powers being sought, Government says

The Government is not seeking new powers to ban the use of social networking, the Home Office has said, according to media reports.26 Aug 2011

Earlier this month the police said that rioters used social media communications to coordinate public disorder. English cities, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, witnessed scenes of violence, vandalism, looting and fire-raising.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the Government would investigate whether "it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality", but following a meeting between ministers, police and representatives of social networks, the Government has said it is not looking to introduce new banning powers.

"The Government did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks," a Home Office spokesperson said, according to a report by the BBC.

Thursday's meeting, which involved representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger, was "constructive", the Home Office said.

"The Home Secretary, along with the Culture Secretary and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, has held a constructive meeting with ACPO, the police and representatives from the social media industry," the Home Office said in a statement.

"The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour," the statement said.

Laws exist in the UK that permits the police to force communications providers to hand over information about customers either to intercept their communications or gain access to the data after it has been sent.

Under the provisions of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) law enforcement agencies, including the police and MI5, can force telecoms companies to hand over customers' details in order to tap phone, internet or email communications to protect the UK's national security interests, prevent and detect terrorism and serious crime or to safeguard the UK's economic well-being.

Telecoms companies have a duty under RIPA to hand over communications data it has or could obtain about customers when asked to do so by police unless "it is not reasonably practicable" to do so. The Home Secretary can ask the courts to issue an injunction "or any other appropriate relief" against telecoms firms that fail to comply with their duty under RIPA. The type of injunction that courts can issue is not defined by RIPA.

An exception within the UK's data protection laws also allows police to force organisations to hand over personal data belonging to customers if it is for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime. The laws also prevent organisations telling individuals that they have handed over their personal data if telling them would jeopordise the prevention or detection of crime.

The Data Protection Act states that in most circumstances it is unlawful for organisations to process personal data without people's consent. It is also unlawful to process the data without having legitimate grounds for collecting and using it and using it in a way that will adversely affect individuals.

Police have not confirmed whether it intercepted communications about the riots or whether it processed information after they had been sent.

Technology would need to develop to make it easier to specifically restrict rioters' access to communications before shutting off a service could be justified, a data protection law expert told OUT-LAW earlier this month.

"The companies cannot suspend users from a service unless they know specific identifying information about them, but equally they cannot identify users without looking through communications to identify those inciting public disorder," Kathryn Wynn, data protection law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW, said.

"It seems unlikely that there is a technological system in place for being able to identify suspects without infringing the privacy of innocent people by conducting what could, depending on the specific circumstances, be viewed as a disproportionate and unreasonable search through high volumes of messages in order to find suspects and stop them communicating," Wynn said

Blackberry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM), which has previously said that it was complying with its requirements under RIPA, said Thursday's meeting had been "positive and productive", according to the BBC's report.

"We were pleased to consult on the use of social media to engage and communicate during times of emergency. RIM continues to maintain an open and positive dialogue with the UK authorities and continues to operate within the context of UK regulations," RIM said, according to the report.

Facebook said it welcomed that discussions had been about cooperation rather than new restrictions, according to the BBC.

"We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on internet services," a statement from the company said, according to the BBC's report. "There is no place for illegal activity on Facebook and we take firm action against those who breach our rules," the statement said.

Twitter said it was it was "always interested in exploring" how the service could be "even more helpful and relevant during times of critical need," according to the BBC.

In England two men were last week sentenced to serve four years in jail after posting comments on Facebook that could have led to a riot, even though no public disorder actually took place.