The central London summit has been convened following evidence to suggest that social networking sites and messaging services were used to co-ordinate criminality during the riots earlier this month.
The meeting will focus on ways of improving the technological and legal capabilities of the police in the future.
Commenting on today’s meeting, a spokesperson from the Home Office explained: “These discussions will help us determine how law enforcement and the networks can work better together.”
The spokesperson continued: “Among the issues to be discussed is whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
The Home Office statement also says: “Social networking is not a cause of the recent disturbances, but a means of enabling criminals to communicate. We are working with the police to see what action can be taken to prevent access to those services by customers identified as perpetrators of disorder or other criminal action.”
The Home Secretary explained her intention to meet with social media representatives during a speech in Parliament on 11 August.
At that time, Theresa May told MPs: “Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and messaging services like BlackBerry Messenger have been used to co-ordinate criminality, and stay one step ahead of the police.”
“I will convene a meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers, police and representatives from the social media industry to work out how we can improve the technological and related legal capabilities of the police.”
Representatives of the three major social networks used during the London and wider England riots earlier this month – Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger service – have all been called to the Home Office.
Facebook has confirmed its attendance, while Research In Motion (RIM) – developer of the excellent BlackBerry smartphones – said it “welcomes the opportunity for consultation together with other companies in the technology and telecommunications industry”.
A statement from Facebook says: “We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK at this challenging time”.
Pleasingly, many responsible Facebook users ‘self-policed’ the site and duly reported any content they felt may be deliberately inciting violence or disorder.
Two men have been given jail terms for trying to incite the riots on Facebook. 20-year-old Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, were both sentenced to four years, although neither of the events the men attempted to organise actually took place.
The sentences were passed by the Crown Court in Chester.
The Crown Prosecution Service stated that both men pleaded guilty to ‘intentionally encouraging another to assist the commission of an indictable offence’ under Sections 44 and 46 of the Serious Crime Act 2007.
The presiding judge said that, even though the men’s call for violence and rioting was not ‘actioned’ by anyone, the sentences were meant to act as a ‘deterrent’ in the wake of the riots.
Civil rights and penal reform groups have subsequently criticised some of the sentences handed down as ‘disproportionate.’
Today’s meeting comes in the wake of David Cameron’s speech in Parliament when he suggested that Government should be able to ‘disconnect’ social and phone networks to prevent civil disorder.
“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media,” said the Prime Minister. “Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill.”
Speaking at the specially convened Parliamentary session, Cameron continued: “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.”
Any move to ‘disconnect’ potential rioters would certainly mark a fundamental shift in Britain’s stated Internet policy, with free speech advocates likely to accuse the Government of attempting to usher in a new wave of online censorship.
Cameron also said: “There were an awful lot of hoaxes and false trails made on Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger. We require a major piece of work to make sure that the police have all the technological capabilities they need to hunt down and beat the criminals.”
Certainly, Research in Motion is under some degree of pressure to explain its actions during the riots after BlackBerry users apparently employed the secure BlackBerry Messenger application to disseminate targets for rioting and looting.
Twitter’s officials famously said during the riots that “the tweets must flow”, but that hasn’t been seen as a responsible stance by all law enforcement agencies.
Meantime, it’s reported that MI5 and electronics interception agency GCHQ have been brought in by the Government in an attempt to ‘crack’ the BlackBerry encryption so as to help prevent further disorder.