Facebook and Twitter Will Say No to Social Media Blocking in Wake of Riots

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Good news for rioters and social networking ne’er-do-wells (and, those groups notwithstanding, anti-censorship folk in general): Facebook and Twitter won’t knuckle under to calls they be shut down when citizens get unruly—as England’s citizenry did just a few weeks ago in London and several other British cities.

Yes, we’re talking about Britain here, but you’ll want to keep an eye on this one, because its outcome has implications for us stateside. We haven’t had a truly major riot in the U.S. since the 1992 epic meltdown in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial (53 people killed, over $1 billion in damages), but we have had hundreds of lesser incidents, including an urban riot in Cincinnati in 2001 after the fatal police shooting of Timothy Thomas that culminated in a damage tab of $3.6 million. What happens abroad will resonate over here, especially when the inevitable future flareups are (also inevitably) tarred as aided and abetted by the rise of social messaging tools.

(PHOTOS: Riots Spread Across England)

Set to square off with Britain’s home secretary Theresa May over the issue this Thursday, Facebook and Twitter will reportedly give no ground, and according to The Guardian, “strongly warn the government against introducing emergency measures that could usher in a new form of online censorship.” That said, there’s likely to be discussion about what the two social networking behemoths might do absent total closure to mitigate service misuse, including working more effectively with British law enforcement. Yep, we’ll want to watch that last bit very closely—it seems police intercepted private Blackberry communiques during the mess, and were able to use the information to thwart attacks on major London landmarks. That’s probably a good thing, but imagine authorities (police, government, you name it) claiming the same “listening” rights around peaceful protests or other civil gatherings, in which case it starts to sound like a very bad thing.

Accusations flew that vandals were using social networking tools as well as private messaging services to coordinate hostilities during the London riots, which occurred between the 6th and 10th of August. But thousands of well-intentioned Londoners also employed services like Twitter and Facebook to orchestrate mass cleanups during the mornings following. While the former wasn’t a surprise, the latter was, and a remarkable reminder of how much technology can help when purposed to do so.

Facebook and Twitter already reserve the right to intercept and eliminate user dispatches clearly intended to service violence or criminal activities, and it sounds like police can issue a warrant to gain access to private messages (say on Blackberry’s network), so there’s already a kind of mechanism in place for dealing with this stuff. No need to leap off bridges with all-or-nothing measures.

Besides, the fact that Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist until the mid-2000s didn’t stop the L.A. and Cincinnati riots, or the Brixton riot of 1981, or the Detroit riot of 1967, or the Watts riots in 1965, or Tulsa riots of 1921, or the…you get the point: Social networks don’t cause riots, people do.

MORE: After Riots, London Crowdsources Cleanup, Identifying Looters

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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