The talks between the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), police forces and the social-networking service providers on Thursday are dedicated to exploring technical measures to block access for individuals inciting violence. They follow the use of social networks by participants in widespread rioting around the UK at the beginning of August.
Home secretary Theresa May is meeting Twitter, RIM and Facebook to discuss social media's role in the recent UK riots.
"These discussions will help us determine how law enforcement and the networks can work better together," the Home Office said in a statement. "Amongst the issues to be discussed is whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."
The Home Office declined to tell ZDNet UK whether it will discuss closing down social networks completely during disorder, but said that social networks are "a means of enabling criminals to communicate".
"We are working with the police to see what action can be taken to prevent access to those services by customers identified as perpetrators of disorder or other criminal action," a spokeswoman for the Home Office added.
The BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) instant-messaging service was used by people to incite looting, according to The Guardian, and two men have been sentenced to four-year prison terms for using Facebook to encourage people to take part in the looting. In response, prime minister David Cameron told parliament the government is considering closing down social networks such as Twitter and Facebook during unrest.
The blocking of communication over social networks is typically associated with repressive regimes and has occurred during disturbances in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, among other countries.
Twitter confirmed that its representative will attend the Home Office meeting, while Facebook is sending Richard Allan, its head of policy in Europe. During the disorder, Facebook said that it had "ensured any credible threats of violence [were] removed from Facebook."
RIM did not respond to a request to comment on the discussions, but said earlier in August it "continues to comply with both UK privacy laws as well as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa)".
Civil liberties concerns
Ten civil liberties organisations, including Liberty and the Open Rights Group (ORG), sent a letter to home secretary May on Wednesday, saying that turning off, restricting or monitoring people's communications networks needed open, detailed deliberation.
"We are very concerned that new measures, made in good faith but in a heated political environment, will overextend powers in ways that would be susceptible to abuse, restrict legitimate, free communication and expression and undermine people's privacy," the groups said in the letter. "This is especially so if proposals involve unaccountable voluntary arrangements between law enforcement and communications providers."
The main danger with voluntary arrangements between service providers and the police is a lack of accountability through the courts, believes ORG executive director Jim Killock.
"Innocent people could well find their accounts suspended without legal recourse," Killock told ZDNet UK.
"More worrying is perhaps the effect on people engaged in political activity. Police could make a judgement that someone is breaking the law, while individuals think they are engaged in legitimate protest."
The Metropolitan Police's acting deputy commissioner Tim Godwin told the Home Affairs Committee last week that police had contemplated switching off Twitter but that "the legality of that is very questionable, and additionally it is also a very useful intelligence asset".
In addition, assistant commissioner Lynne Owens told the committee that police had monitored Twitter and BBM in real time. "There was intelligence that the Olympic sites, that both Westfields and Oxford Street were indeed going to be targeted," Owens said. "We were able to secure all those places and indeed there was no damage at any of them."