Disasterproofing Social Media

About a year ago, we posted on the increasing use of social media in disasters.

A survey from the American Red Cross had shown that web users increasingly rely on social media to seek help in a disaster, and expect first responders to be listening.

Fast forward to today and according to L.A. NOW, a blog at the Los Angeles Times, a summer marked by social media-fueled riots in England and flash-mob violence in a number of U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and Cleveland, has prompted a debate about a social media crackdown.

L.A. NOW reports that rioters in and around London used BlackBerry messages to plan attacks, leading British Prime Minister David Cameron to suggest shutting down access to social media for anyone suspected of using it for criminal activity.

And after a large flash mob disrupted a Fourth of July fireworks display with violence here in the U.S., the Cleveland City Council passed an ordinance that would have made it illegal to use social media to organize a violent and disorderly flash mob. The mayor eventually vetoed the measure, citing First Amendment concerns.

Also, just last week officials at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) shut down its cell phone service to disrupt a protest over the shooting of a homeless man.

This raises an important question of whether officials legally can crack down on social media.

According to L.A. NOW:

Legal experts say police face a delicate balance when cracking down on social media — and prosecutors would have to meet a high bar to show that irresponsible, even reckless tweeting amounts to a crime.†

Across the Pond, an article in the London Guardian newspaper makes the point that police thwarted planned attacks on the Olympics site and stores in Oxford Circus, after gleaning intelligence from encrypted social messaging sites such as BlackBerry Messenger and also Twitter.

The Guardian also says police had considered switching off certain social messaging sites, but discovered they did not have the legal powers to do so.

In the words of acting Metropolitan police commissioner, Tim Godwin, cited by The Guardian:

We did consider seeking the legal authority to switch it off. The legality is questionable, very questionable.†

What do you think?

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