Apparently the Fat Lady Never Sang: Social Media Faces Questions from British Government, Again

By Kelsey Blair 

When the British government met with social media giants Twitter, RIM, and Facebook in August, the matter seemed closed. Apparently not. The UK government questioned the media giants again this week.

In early August 2011, a week worth of riots shook Britain. However, the aftermath has turned into its own form of minor chaos. Returning to parliament early in August, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was quick to note the role social media played in the riots saying, “Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.” This began a debate about the role social media played in the riots; more importantly, it began a debate about how much responsibility the companies should take for users’ actions during moments of social unrest.

In late August, representatives from the three major social media companies – Twitter, Facebook, and RIM (the maker of Black Berry) – met with Home Secretary Theresa May for a Home office summit. It was expected that May would discuss the possibility of “shutting down” social media during times of crisis. However, that was not the case. Not only did the companies offer “no concessions” on the idea of shutting down, the government, apparently, didn’t ask them to.  A statement from the government stated that: “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.” And, we assumed that was that.

However, on Thursday September 15th, the social media giants were questioned again. A Home Affairs committee quizzed the social media giants  and this time, the answers provided were slightly different. Yahoo News reports that:

The makers of BlackBerry admitted 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.

The Committee also questioned the Director of Policy for Facebook Richard Allan and Alexander Macgillvray, responsible for Twitter policy who was not so keen to accept responsibility. Macgillvray noted: “We have not found, because our service is such a public service, that it’s a particularly good tool for organizing illegal activity.”

It is unclear whether or not the government’s committee received the answers they are looking for. However, one wonders how long these hearings and meetings can last. While the government is clearly eager to place blame, the social media companies are equally as eager to divert it. It certainly seems like it would be more productive if both sides could truly work together.