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How can rioters be banned from social media?

Individuals who participate in riots and similar criminal activities should be prevented from using social media and similar tools to communicate and organize, according to British Prime Minister David Cameron. But just how this could be done? How do you ban people from social media?

Unfortunately Cameron's statement to the House of Commons failed to answer those questions. He simply focused on the apparent link between social media and the London riots — and that it must be severed somehow.

In all fairness, he did imply that there are no actual plans to ban people from social media yet and instead pointed out that authorities are still determining whether such a move would be "right" and just:

[E]veryone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media.

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.

So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

Now what happens if those authorities determine that it would be "right" to stop people from communicating via social media services? How would they cut those individuals off?

As far as we can tell, there are three key approaches which could be used: individual bans achieved through cooperation with the social media services in question, filtering of certain social media sites by Internet service providers or a large-scale shutdown of an entire area's Internet service.

Here's the kicker though: Each of those three approaches is flawed and can easily be circumvented by someone determined to cause trouble.

Individual bans

If we assume that Prime Minister Cameron is merely interested in stopping those who are suspected of criminal activity from using social media services rather than making large groups of innocent people suffer as well, we'd imagine that he'd seek out a way to just ban those very specific people from their communication channels of choice. 

But this seems like an incredibly unlikely and difficult to manage approach. After all, the British government would need the cooperation of every social media service it wishes to ban people from and a way to clearly identify those particular individuals and their corresponding social media accounts. The sheer difficulty of getting all those pieces in place makes it highly unlikely that such an approach would be taken.

But even if it was, it wouldn't be too difficult to circumvent. Depending on how certain social media services banned individuals — by IP or email address, for example — folks would still be able to use proxy services or create alternate accounts.

Basically the takeaway is this: Unless the British government has some kind of never-before-seen tactic up its sleeve, it wouldn't be able to ban rioters — or anyone else — from social media services and other communication tools.

And even if it has some kind of foolproof method in mind? It wouldn't take long for determined individuals to find a way to fool it — even if they had to handwrite Twitter messages and send them to a transcription service via carrier pigeon.

ISP filtering

When it comes to filtering content on an ISP level, most are familiar with the two major examples of such Internet censorship methods: Australia and China.

Both countries have systems in place which allow certain sites and services to be blacklisted and blocked at the government's choosing. And both countries have plenty of people who easily circumvent those systems by using proxy or VPN services.

It is likely that similar tactics would be used to bypass Britain's Cleanfeed content blocking system — a nationwide ISP level filtering system currently used to block access to child pornography — if it or another similar method were used to block social media services.

Internet shutdown

While it is highly unlikely that Britain would resort to a large-scale shutdown of the entire region's Internet access, we've witnessed such an action in January 2011 when the Egyptian government made what was — until then — an unprecedented move and put a temporary end to all online communication. Internet traffic in and out of the country was halted after regional ISPs received an order to stop their services. Egypt effectively disappeared from the Internet.

But information still kept flowing.

Both people in Egypt as well as those outside of the country quickly arranged for ways to continue communicating. Group texting apps, phone-to-tweet services, old-school dial-up connections, and similar tactics were used by those affected by the shutdown.

In essence, a nationwide Internet shutdown merely slowed — but didn't stop — those who wanted or needed to move information. It is reasonable to assume that a similar approach would fail to disrupt communication in Britain anymore than it did in Egypt.

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Rosa Golijan writes about tech here and there. She's obsessed with Twitter and loves to be liked on FacebookOh, and she can be found on Google+, too.