POLICE could be handed new powers to shut down social media networks, after David Cameron announced the government was looking at a stringent new measures to tackle disorder following the riots in English cities over the past week.
The crackdown was described by legal experts as the most "fundamental shift" in the government's relationship with the internet and by civil liberty groups as "very dangerous".
In an emergency session of parliament yesterday, the Prime Minister vowed to do "whatever it takes" to bring order back to Britain's streets after days of riots, widespread destruction, looting and death in London and other cities.
Mr Cameron said talks were to be held with companies such as Twitter, BlackBerry and Facebook, as well as the intelligence services, to discuss actions that could limit their reach, to help prevent further disorder. Social networks were widely used by gangs to co-ordinate the riots across the country.
Turning off social networks was controversially used in Middle Eastern and North African states in the "Arab Spring", and the government refused to rule out following suit. "Nothing should be off the table," Mr Cameron told MPs. "Every contingency is being looked at."
In a marathon two hour, 50 minute session in which he answered 165 questions, Mr Cameron said the government would be changing the law to give police greater powers to force people not to wear masks or hoods in public in potential trouble spots, as well as increasing curfew powers.
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He said he was reluctant to bring in the army but refused to rule out the use of soldiers to help the police, and he called on severe sentences to be handed out to the perpetrators of the recent violence.
He said the government would be looking at ways of removing benefits from those found guilty of rioting and looting, as well as having them evicted from social housing.
In an effort to tackle gang problems in England he said the government would be looking at how Strathclyde Police reduced gang trouble in the West of Scotland by 50 per cent using a scheme that offers offenders an alternative lifestyle.
He said: "The whole country has been shocked by the most appalling scenes of people looting, violence, vandalising and thieving. It is criminality, pure and simple, and there is absolutely no excuse for it.
We have seen houses, offices and shops raided and torched, police officers assaulted and fire crews attacked as they try to put out fires, people robbing others while they lie injured and bleeding in the street, and even three innocent people being deliberately run over and killed in Birmingham.
"We will not put up with this in our country. We will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets."
The Prime Minister also announced the government would be tackling social issues in "broken Britain", a policy that had been sidelined because of opposition from his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Mr Cameron said Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith would be working alongside Home Secretary Theresa May to find solutions.
However, the Prime Minister rejected Labour demands for a public inquiry into the riots, saying the Commons home affairs select committee would be examining the issue when MPs returned after the summer.
The victims of riots are to be helped out with compensation from the Treasury reserves through provisions in the 125-year-old Riots (Damages) Act, while shopkeepers and other businesses will receive rate relief.
But it was the announcement of talks over whether police should be allowed to trace the users of social media networks, or if they should be closed down during troubles, that generated the most reaction.
A Downing Street spokesman confirmed that both "moral and practical questions" about what could be done would be discussed. He refused to rule out a blanket shutdown of networks during periods of disorder.
The suggestion sparked a wave of criticism, with John Bassett, a former senior official at the GCHQ, spy agency saying "any attempt to exert state control over social media looks likely to fail".
Isabella Sankey, director of policy for human rights group Liberty, said: "Punishing the majority of innocent users of phone and social media networks, including those warning others of violence, seems hugely disproportionate, not to mention ineffective.
"The events of the past few days have understandably led to calls for tough new measures, but kneejerk powers which bear little logical connection to the harm they seek to address could cause more problems than they solve."
Steve Kuncewicz, a media lawyer who advises high-profile clients on defamation over the web, said Mr Cameron could be rendered powerless if he decided to take on the websites head-on, and he warned that the tone marked a "fundamental shift" in the government's relationship with the web.
But he also questioned whether the government could bring the networks under control. He said: "In terms of the websites themselves – given that they are outside UK jurisdiction – the government is not going to be able to take any particularly strong steps," he said.
"You look at what happened with Facebook a few years ago. People were calling for a panic button, but Facebook just said flat out 'No'.
"There will be discussions between politicians and networks about what their responsibilities are, but it could get very dangerous – you are looking at the erosion of the right to freedom of expression. I think this particular crisis has shown social networks work both ways – it has just as much poured oil on the troubled water as spread them."
Naomi Pryde an Edinburgh-based litigation lawyer, described the move as an "overreaction" and "probably unworkable".
"A blanket ban would affect millions of innocent people and would actually block the good use of these networks which have also been used to help co-ordinate the clean-up efforts and help out the victims of the riots," she said. "There is also the issue that people often move on from one social networking tool to another, so it is very hard to stop them."
Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant, said: "Even if Facebook and Twitter did ban specific users who were suspected of being up to no good, it's trivial to create a brand new account on these sites using bogus credentials."
In a day of political unity, there was no criticism from the Labour benches over the idea of looking at social media use, with party leader Ed Miliband promising to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Prime Minister.