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Public Disorder: Social Networking Sites — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 6th September 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 3:01 pm, 6th September 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they intend to take concerning the use of social networking sites during periods of civil unrest.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

Following the recent riots, the Home Secretary held a constructive meeting with ACPO, the police and representatives from the social media industry. Companies have made clear their commitment to removing illegal content and, when appropriate, closing accounts, whether at the request of the police or because of a tip-off from others. It was agreed to step up co-operation to ensure that these processes are working effectively. The Government are committed to a free and open internet, and we are not seeking additional powers to close down social media networks.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. Can she confirm that the police are not, then, seeking powers to disable Twitter, for example, when they deem it necessary? Would she agree that there is an important balance to be struck between, on the one hand, catching and prosecuting those who use social media for anything illegal, whether incitement to loot or child pornography or any other illegal purpose, and, on the other hand, a wholesale surveillance and censoring operation that should remain totally unacceptable in this country? Can she assure me that the striking of that balance will be an open and accountable process rather than one decided behind closed doors by the owners of social media networks, the police and the Home Secretary?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

I can reassure my noble friend. She will be aware that the police and other investigatory agencies are required to comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and other legislation which seeks to bring that balance. It is not the case that they can do things unilaterally without being held to account.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, the Prime Minister said in the other place on 11 August,

"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".-[Hansard, Commons, 11/8/11; col. 1053.]

On 25 August, the Deputy Prime Minister told the Daily Telegraph:

"I'll tell you what is not going to happen - there is not going to be a Chinese or Iranian-style black-out of social media. And let's not forget that during the riots, social media was very helpful to lots of people in finding out what was going on and in bringing communities together".

Which of these two statements now represents Government policy?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

My Lords, as always, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are as one. There is nothing incompatible in those statements. The Prime Minister did not say we wanted to close down networks; he said we would work with the police, industry and others to look at what would be right to do in order to prevent criminality. Anything that is a crime offline is also a crime online, and the companies that we have been consulting have made very clear their commitment to removing illegal content-something which I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister is very pleased to hear.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

Bearing in mind the advantage to our side in listening to radio transmissions by the enemy during the last war, what is the Government's distinction between hacking, which is illegal, and listening in to subversive communications during riots?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

I am a little young to remember exactly what happened during the last world war; I came in immediately after it, so I cannot comment exactly on the law that applied at that time. However, I can tell my noble friend that we in this country have clear legislation, with which both the police and the investigatory services are required to comply, that sets the important balance between the protection of the national interest and the protection of the public in terms of the way in which criminality may affect them and the right to a free society. It is for that reason that we are not seeking to close down networks.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, there is a difference between these sorts of networks, which are very open so that anyone can get on to them and listen in, and the other sorts of networks that we are talking about. It would be madness for us not to have our agencies-the police and others-looking at these areas. Could the Minister let us know that the Government have a clear policy on exactly how that is to be done? It is not breaking RIPA-type laws when you listen in to Twitter or something similar. Many of us listen in to Twitter and Facebook, and that does not break any laws. We need a mechanism whereby the police and other agencies can use the information on these networks to protect the public. Is there clarity about exactly what can be done?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

We believe that there is a need for more training in police forces, and ACPO is taking the lead on this. For example, some police forces around the country use information from Twitter and other such networks more effectively than others, often because they have one or two individuals who themselves are hi-tech, have very good access and can use intelligence from the information that they glean from those networks. Through ACPO, we are seeking to improve that around the country. There is nothing illegal about that; it is something that we believe the police could use to better effect, and that training is an important part of it.