UK social media chiefs grilled

2011-09-15 18:45

London - The makers of BlackBerry admitted on Thursday social media could be used for "malicious purposes" but the vast majority of users were law-abiding, during a grilling by British lawmakers on August's riots.

Stephen Bates, managing director of Research in Motion in Britain and Ireland, insisted that social media was generally a "force for good", a position backed by executives from Facebook and Twitter during the hearing in London.

"There's no dispute that... social media was used for malicious purposes," Bates told parliament's home affairs committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the four nights of unprecedented riots in English cities.

Commentators have dubbed them the "BlackBerry riots" because they were fuelled by the use of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), an instant messenger service on phones which can be shared between up to 30 people.

Bates acknowledged that "BlackBerry is the mobile phone choice of the youth of Britain" but said the majority of its seven million British users, who included many police officers and workers at top companies, were law-abiding.

The committee also quizzed Richard Allan, the director of policy for Facebook, and Alexander Macgillivray, general counsel responsible for public policy at Twitter, who flew in from California for the hearing.

The MPs heard that both BlackBerry and Facebook had received requests from the police for information about the riots, but no details were given.

Privacy concerns

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders criticised the Canada-based Research in Motion last month for helping police identify rioters who used BBM, citing privacy concerns.

Bates refused to disclose in public whether BlackBerry messages had been handed over to the authorities, saying only: "Whenever there is a legitimate response from the police we will respond to it."

Both Allan and Macgillivray meanwhile told MPs that Facebook and Twitter were too open to be of much use to criminals, and said they had found little evidence that they played a part in encouraging the rioters.

"We have not found, because our service is such a public service, that it's a particularly good tool for organising illegal activity," Macgillivray said of Twitter.

All three men opposed the idea of shutting down their services during disorder, noting that many people had used Twitter, Facebook and BBM to let friends and family know they were safe when the violence broke out.

Shops were looted and burned and five people were killed in the riots that erupted in London on August 6 and then spread to cities including Birmingham and Manchester in England's worst unrest for a generation.

  • Stirer - 2011-09-15 19:00

    ..... I don't know what their point is. So can TV, Radio, newspapers, telephones, faxes, Email, Citizens Band, and even shouting the odds at Hyde Park corner!

      spookhuis - 2011-09-15 20:03

      Yip agree with you, even the old fashion hand written letter can be abused.

      Valis - 2011-09-15 20:10

      Because it is all about government controlling the flow of information, thus controlling the population itself.

  • Wes - 2011-09-15 20:17

    Politicians are dumb. They don't need to be smart i suppose.

  • pviss - 2011-09-15 20:31

    Give somebody a hammer. You can build a house with a hammer. You can shape steel with a hammer. A hammer can be used in many good and constructive ways. It can also be used to smash somebodies head in. Should we ban hammers too?

  • pviss - 2011-09-15 20:51

    I would like to add, mobile phones (Cell Phones) of all makes, have been used to co-ordinate many crimes all over the world, including the September 11 attacks in the USA. The Blackberry is a also communication tool that can, as any other tool, be used for good or for evil. So don't go blaming the riots in the UK just on a single make of phone. Damn it, if you want to prevent all illegal communications, you may as well have all our vocal chords surgically removed, and cut off our hands so we can't write anything as well.

      spookhuis - 2011-09-16 02:47

      Isn't our government doing just that by push (shoving) the information bill through with such speed and haste?

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