In a recent post we discussed how the State of Missouri has banned teacher/student communications via social media, and asked whether this ban was an anomaly or the wave of the future.  (Is Missouri’s New Law Banning Teacher-Student Communications Via Social Media The Wave Of The Future?)  Well, in the wake of the London riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron, believes that future may be now. 

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Mr. Cameron told the British Parliament, as quoted in The New York Times – Cameron Exploring Crackdown on Social Media After Riots.  “Free flow of information can be used for good.  But it can also be used for ill.” 

Mr. Cameron also declared to the New York Times, “[a]nd 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 Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

So how did Prime Minister Cameron respond?  He summoned representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion, makers of Blackberry, for a meeting to discuss their roles during the violent rioting.  “Representatives of Facebook and Twitter said they’re happy to meet with the government, although both would presumably object to being censored or shut down in the U.K.”  CNN Tech – In Wake of Riots, British PM Proposes Social Media Ban.

What is the answer?  Can the Government actually accomplish this?   Has the government painted itself into a corner with this kind of rhetoric?

“I’m not too worried” Graham Linehan, creator of the British show “The IT Crowd”, and renowned expert on tech and social media, told MSNBC- Technolog – UK Anti-Tech Crackdown?  Not Bloody Likely.  “I’m hoping its just a harmless exercise in looking-like-you’re-doing something.”  Linehan further explained that “the riots seem to have woken [the government] up to the possibilities of social media in connecting to the public.”  

The police have in fact woken up.  On the night on August 8, the police arrested Jordan Blackshaw, 20, for posting messages on Facebook inciting others to riot in the town of Northwich.  According to The Guardian – Facebook Riot Calls Earn Men Four-Year Jail Terms Amid Sentence Outcry, Blackshaw set up an “event” called “Smash Down.”  No one, apart from the police, showed up at the prearranged meeting site.  The police had monitored the Facebook page. 

Another example of the government’s use of social media, the Greater Manchester Police are now naming and shaming rioters on their Twitter feed.  As reported in New York Times – A Perp Walk on Twitter – the Manchester Police announced “[w]e promised we’d name all those convicted for their roles in the disorder – here we go . . .”  And that it did.  The police named individuals, and gave dates of birth and partial addresses of individuals tried in connection with the disorders.  Manchester and London Police have also been posting photo streams on sites such as Flickr, and asked the public to identify riot suspects.  This is hardly a new technique –just a new medium which happens to spread the word in a viral fashion.  Law enforcement has been using media to “name and shame” those convicted of certain crimes.

It’s not just in England that police are using social media as a tool.  In the wake of the recent flash mob in Maryland, in which a group of teenagers descended upon a 7-Eleven, ransacked the store and stole hundreds on dollars merchandise, the police posted surveillance camera footage on YouTube and contacted local media with the link.  CNN – Police Scramble to Fight Flash-Mob Mayhem reported that the Maryland detectives then visited the local high school and asked students and staff to help them identify faces. Within a day at least one-half of the alleged thieves had been identified.  The conclusion – “[t]echnology and old-fashioned police work are on our side.”

Can the government have its cake and eat it too?  As PM David Cameron pointed out – “free flow on information can be used for good.  But it can also be used for ill.”  Isn’t this what employers are facing every day?  Employers, too, find that they are faced with monitoring social media sites for certain bad behavior by employees.   Employers, too, are looking at how to stop harmful communication via social media.  The question will be, what action will government take?  What action has your Company taken?