Prime Minister David Cameron has been forced to drop controversial plans to shut down social networking sites during civil disturbances after being accused of censorship. Rights groups warned that such a move could lead to abuse of “legitimate free communication”.

The plan was floated in the wake of the recent riots when rioters were said to have used Twitter, Facebook and a Blackberry messaging service to coordinate their actions. Mr. Cameron had personally proposed a clampdown on such services as part of his government's “fightback” against lawlessness.

But at a meeting with representatives of the social media on Thursday, senior Ministers, including Home Secretary Theresa May, made clear that the government was not seeking any new powers to censor the internet. Instead, the meeting focused on better cooperation between law enforcement agencies and new media networks to prevent the latter from being used for disruptive purposes.

“The government's position was set out right at the beginning: they are not out to shut down any social networks,” said a representative of one social media outlet.

A Facebook spokesman said: “We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on internet services.”

The Home Office, describing the meeting as “constructive”, said: “The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and co-operation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behaviour. The government did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks.”

Officials were reported as saying the government's original move was announced in the “heat of the moment”.

Shortly before the meeting, ten leading human rights groups including Index on Censorship and Amnesty International wrote to Ms. May warning that any move to curb social media would be “susceptible to abuse, restrict legitimate, free communication and expression and undermine people's privacy”.

Police had also opposed the move arguing they found such services useful in gathering intelligence during riots.

More In: International | News