By Ben Rooney (Dow Jones) - U.K. government proposals to prevent individual users from accessing social media during periods of civil disorder are not likely viable, according to legal and technology experts.
The former CTO of British Telecom, Peter Cochrane, had a blunt assessment of the idea, which has come amid riots that plagued several British cities this week: "It is all bluff," he said, adding that the politicians "don't understand the internet." Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion's messenger service, BBM, have been blamed for helping to fuel the violence.
Attempts to block individuals from accessing particular websites could fall afoul of the U.K.'s Human Rights Act, said Nick Tyler, senior associate at the London office of law firm Reed Smith. "It would go to the heart of democracy and liberal society," he said. "There is a confusion here between preventative measures, stopping people from doing things, and investigative matters, investigating things once they have done it."
In terms of investigation, the government does have an important legal tool: the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which granted public bodies extensive powers to conduct surveillance, including intercepting emails, accessing private communications data, and planting and monitoring surveillance devices for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder.
Cochrane, the former BT CTO who is now a consultant, also was dismissive of preventative measures from a technological point of view. "It is a ridiculous thing to say", he said. "It is all bluff. There is no mechanism to do it."
"These politicians don't get it. They don't understand the internet, they don't understand the technology, they don't understand the workarounds." "I would like to be in the room when they have the discussion with the intelligence services.
They will get their ears bent." "It won't come to anything because it would be so easy to bypass."
According to Cochrane, blocking URLs to websites could easily be circumvented by using people offering tunnelling services. A user would log into one site and then use that site to link to, say, Facebook or Twitter.
Bruce Schneier, a leading security expert, says it's probably not possible to effectively block suspected rioters from using social networking tools. Legal issues aside, you can certainly block accounts and IP addresses, but that is so easy to circumvent that it's useless, he says.
"People are kicked off sites all the time. You can get kicked off Twitter or Facebook, certainly. The mechanisms are there. But remember, those are accounts being kicked off, not people being kicked off. The link between accounts and people is difficult."
"It's looking at the tactic rather than the problem. It's like saying, 'The bad guys are wearing blue shirts; let's make blue shirts illegal'. But they can just switch to red shirts." U.K. authorities already have significant powers over the mobile network. RIM's BBM service has been singled out for particular blame, with one British M.P. calling for the service to be closed down during riots. Unlike Facebook and ,Twitter, BBM is available only via mobile networks.
According to a person familiar with the matter, the U.K. authorities already have significant powers of control over the mobile network. But doing so would raise problems for all users, not just those rioting. Under the Communications Act 2003 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the government can order the network closed down, the person said. These powers have never been used. "There is a facility called Mobile Telecom Privileged Access Scheme, known as MT-PAS, that gives the Gold Commander the senior police officer in control of a major operation] the power to shut down all mobile access in a particular area. Only MT-PAS enabled phones can use the network," the person said. "It is a very blunt instrument," the person said. "Someone trying to call the police because their house was being broken into wouldn't be able to."