Blocking social media access a ‘slippery path,’ civil liberties advocates say

That British government officials are considering blocking access to social media sites as a means of curbing the rioting that has plagued that nation’s cities has led some Americans to wonder if such government actions could happen here.

Michael Macleod-Ball, legislative chief of staff at the American Civil Liberties Union, said any similar measure in the United States would face significant legal hurdles.

Under the First Amendment, any government action curbing free speech must be narrowly drawn to serve a compelling government interest, according to Macleod-Ball.

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"That's a very high threshold for any law or executive action to pass," he said.

David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, told Parliament Thursday that many rioters were relying on social media tools to help them organize.

"Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," he said.

Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's project on global Internet freedom, said blocking access to social media is "an extremely slippery path to head down."


If the British government shuts down access to BlackBerry Messenger for example, rioters may just start using Twitter. Shutting off rioters' access to just one site might not be enough to quell the rioting, she said.

Wong noted that Cameron criticized Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak for shutting off the Internet in his country during protests. Any broad effort to cut off social media access would undermine Britain's moral leadership, Wong said.

Both Wong and Macleod-Ball noted government officials in Britain or the U.S. might use their influence in certain circumstances to pressure websites to block users.

British Home Secretary Theresa May has requested a meeting with representatives from Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion.

Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, said, "We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK at this challenging time." 

A Twitter spokeswoman said about the meeting with May: "We'd be happy to listen."