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Rights groups uneasy over Cameron's riot crackdown

Tossing rioters out of state-subsidized homes, unmasking young men who hide their faces behind hoods, demanding that phone networks shut off access to messaging services or social networks during unrest.

Britain's government has pledged an iron-fisted response to the wide-scale looting and violence that scarred London and other English cities — for some reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's uncompromising stance against civil unrest.

While there are those who cheer the tough talk from Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, others recall center-left leader Tony Blair's response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States — and the legal missteps that corroded civil liberties and fueled mistrust of authority among young Muslims.

"The events of the past few days have understandably led to calls for tough new measures," said Isabella Sankey, policy director for the human rights group Liberty. "But knee-jerk powers ... could cause more problems than they solve."

Cameron has pledged to hand police, local authorities and the courts sweeping powers to mete out severe punishments to those involved in the unrest. He has also warned that in the future, looters could be met by the rare sight of water cannons, dye sprays and even the country's military deployed on Britain's streets.

"The fight-back has well and truly begun," Cameron declared Thursday in an emergency session of Parliament.

Under one of the most contentious plans, the government will consider whether to make it easier for local authorities to evict people who are convicted of crimes and live in homes subsidized by taxpayers.

Currently, authorities can boot out residents who commit offenses in their own neighborhood only — and evict about 3,000 of Britain's 8 million public housing tenants each year. If the new plans are approved, it won't matter where a person has committed their crime.

Eric Pickles, Britain's Communities Secretary, acknowledged the policy could leave some people homeless.

"That may sound a little harsh, but I just don't think it's time to pussyfoot around," Pickles told BBC television. "They've done their best to destroy neighborhoods. Frankly, I don't feel sympathetic towards them."

Cameron has also promised to discuss whether police should be allowed tougher powers to break up crowds, or to impose nighttime curfews on trouble spots.

A program that allows authorities to restrict the movements of convicted gang members and prevent them from displaying gang-related insignia will be extended across the country, he said.

Once the law is changed, any police officer will also be able to demand that people remove hoods, masks, caps — and potentially even an Islamic niqab or burqa — if they suspect someone is hiding their identity and planning to offend. Currently, a senior officer must authorize use of the tactic.

Most controversially of all, Cameron has said the government, spy agencies and the communications industry should discuss whether it may be necessary to disrupt the use of cell phones services, messaging services or social networking tools during civil unrest.

"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," Cameron said.

His Conservative-led coalition government — which took office in May 2010 — has been praised for overturning some of Britain's most repressive anti-terrorism legislation. Ministers have overhauled a program under which people who had never been accused of a terrorism offense could be held under virtual house arrest, and ended a practice that allowed police to detain suspects without charge for up to 28 days.

An unpopular national identity card program was scrapped and new limits were imposed on the retention of DNA profiles and the spread of closed-circuit TV cameras.

"The coalition has done great work in rolling back some of the most draconian laws imposed under Tony Blair, we have to hope David Cameron's administration doesn't now fall into the same traps," said Daniel Hamilton, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.

Police claim during Britain's recent riots — which began Saturday and ran through Tuesday — young criminals used Twitter and Blackberry instant messages, the simple and largely cost-free messaging service popular with young people, to coordinate looting sprees. An 18-year-old woman was charged Friday with using Blackberry messages to encourage others to take part in violence.

Home Secretary Theresa May, in charge of policing, said quick exchanges of messages and social networks allowed rioters to "stay one step ahead of the police."

Cameron's office said in response, the government will debate whether cell phone services could be disrupted during riots, if blackouts could be imposed on social networks, or whether websites would agree to remove photos or messages that could incite violence.

Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry manufacturer Research In Motion Ltd. are being summoned to talks with Britain's Home Office to discuss the government's concerns.

The suggestions have met with outrage — with some critics comparing Cameron to the despots ousted during the Arab Spring.

Curbs on social media would be "a spectacularly revealing moment for First World regimes," Egyptian pro-democracy blogger Mahmoud Salem, known by his online handle Sandmonkey, he wrote in a Twitter post.

"Cameron must not allow legitimate anger over the recent riots and looting in the U.K. to be used in an attack on free expression and free information," said Padraig Reidy, of Index on Censorship.

While much of his response has appeared aggressive, Cameron also pledged to learn lessons from community-based programs in the U.S. that have reduced gang violence by adopting a sensitive approach.

Boston and some other U.S. cities have law enforcement, social services and crime victims hold franks discussions with those carrying out violence, a program that has already been adopted in Scotland and delivered effective results.

David Kennedy, the U.S. adviser on gang violence whose approach Cameron is seeking to adopt, said Britain won't crack youth violence or halt unrest with heavy-handed tactics.

"That's absolutely the script that the United States followed for decades, and the results are always the same. You don't get the public safety and crime control that you desired, and you run the risk of alienating the very communities that you are trying to protect," said Kennedy, director of Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.