LONDON, Aug. 26 (Xinhua) -- The rise of the Internet and social media platforms has brought great benefits to businesses and societies but there is a negative side to the new digital word, exemplified in Britain by several high profile events revealing how destructive the power of the Net can be when wielded by irresponsible hands.
In summer 2011, serious riots in north London spread across many areas of the capital and then to other cities in England over successive nights.
The authorities were caught unawares by the speed the riots spread and by their size and seriousness. It was the largest outbreak of public disorder in more than 80 years, and the scale and swiftness of the riots was greatly aided by social media on the Internet.
Rioters planned and advertised events on social media like Facebook and Twitter, through emails, and through BBM, the pin-protected messaging system used on Blackberry phones. The BBM system had the advantage for the rioters of being immune from access by the police.
Local media reported that the British government, under Prime Minister David Cameron was considering unusual options.
The Daily Mail wrote, "The government and the intelligence agencies MI5 and GCHQ are in talks with mobile phone companies and Internet service providers about how they might prevent gang leaders from co-ordinating looting raids using instant phone messaging and social networking sites such as Twitter."
The paper continued, "Senior sources said that among the options they are considering are turning off mobile phone masts in riot areas or shutting down the accounts of known suspects when trouble starts."
Prime Minister Cameron told the House of Commons in a debate, "When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them. We will not stop until this mindless violence and thuggery is defeated and law and order is fully restored on all our streets."
The riots were contained before legislation to limit social media and the Internet in such circumstances was drawn up, and subsequently the government did not develop any such legislation.
However, the authorities were swift to use existing laws in a tough and high-profile fashion to deter rioters.
For example, within two weeks of the riots ending, two men who separately tried to organize riots using Facebook were dealt with in high-profile cases which made national news.
Both men came from Cheshire in the north of England and separately tried to use their Facebook pages to organize riots in their towns of Northwich and Warrington.
The planned riots never happened, but the police and courts were keen to make examples of the men.
They were arrested and dealt with by the courts within days, which is unusually quick for English courts, and received tough sentences of four years in prison.
In a report commissioned by the British government, "The August Riots in England" published by the National Center for Social Research, academics said all the media, including social media, played a part in the riots.
The report said, "From young people's accounts, there can be little doubt that the media, including social media, played a part in shaping involvement. While social media did not necessarily trigger involvement, it undoubtedly speeded up the exchange of information and increased the number of young people aware of the events as they were happening -- thereby giving more of them the chance to get involved."
It continued, "Some young people interviewed in prison particularly emphasized the role of BBM broadcasts in telling them and others what was happening and where to go next."
EXISTING LAWS USED IN REGULATION OF INTERNET
The British approach to crimes on the Internet is to use existing laws to chase offenders, rather than to create new legislation.
In an incident earlier this year, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons ended up in court for what she had done on a social media platform.
The Speaker, John Bercow, is one of the most important figures in the British establishment, and he sits as a kind of judge and chairman in the House of Commons.
His behavior is closely watched by the politically powerful and the media.
The media were delighted when Bercow became Speaker in 2009, as his wife Sally Bercow was keen to work with the media to create her own media profile.
She gained a reputation as a controversial commentator on public affairs, and gained a big following on the micro-blog site Twitter.
Sally Bercow's willingness to comment on public affairs on Twitter led her into a lot of trouble.
Over the past few years, Britons have been shocked by the revelations that famous public figures, many from the worlds of entertainment and TV, have been accused of sexually exploiting young girls and boys, many during the 1970s and 1980s.
The BBC went so far as to make detailed allegations of paedophilia in its flagship TV current affairs program Newsnight against a former senior member of the Conservative Party.
Libel laws meant that the BBC steered clear of naming the politician directly, hoping to avoid court action even though they had a witness who claimed the politician was guilty.
But speculation and rumor pointed the finger at several possible targets.
Sally Bercow became part of that rumor machine when she tweeted to her followers and to anyone able to access Twitter "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*".
Lord McAlpine, a former Treasurer of the Conservative Party, was not involved in the paedophilia.
The BBC later accepted that it had taken the word of a witness who had mistakenly identified McAlpine and based its story on that, even though it had not named him.
McAlpine accepted a damages payment from the BBC, and he also took Bercow to court.
There had been several Twitter accounts which had made allegations against McAlpine, but he decided to legally pursue only the 20 largest accounts by number of followers.
The judge, Justice Tugendhat, said, "The reasonable reader would understand the words 'innocent face' as being insincere and ironical. There is no sensible reason for including those words in the tweet if they are to be taken as meaning that the defendant simply wants to know the answer to a factual question. It is an allegation of guilt."
Bercow was ordered to pay McAlpine's legal costs, which are likely to have been more than 100,000 pounds (about 155,000 U.S. dollars).
Media commentator Roy Greenslade, a former national newspaper editor, commented on the case in his blog at the time of the ruling in spring this year.
Bercow had maintained her innocence and said she did not intend to point the finger of blame at McAlpine.
Greenslade wrote, "Mr. Justice Tugendhat disagreed, remarking that it amounted to a defamatory innuendo."
Greenslade added, "This ruling may give heart to people who feel that tweeters who mention them are not observing the law as strictly as mainstream media. Just 140 characters can cost the unwary an awful lot of loot."