Following the UK’s third terrorist attack in ten weeks, Prime Minister Theresa May placed some of the blame on the internet and called for an elimination of “safe spaces” for extremist groups.
Second, we cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.
We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning. And we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.
Third, while we need to deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online, we must not forget about the safe spaces that continue to exist in the real world. Yes, that means taking military action to destroy Isis in Iraq and Syria. But it also means taking action here at home.
While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society.
While May and the Conservative Party have previously called for restrictions on the internet, even Labour MP called for “internet companies who terrorists have again used to communicate to be held legally liable for content.”(1) The Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron called May’s response a “political gimmick”.
If we turn the internet into a tool for censorship and surveillance, the terrorists will have won. We won’t make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free. (2)
British voters head to the polls on June 8th in a race in which May’s Conservative Party holds a slim lead.
Criticism in the UK
May’s attempt to scapegoat the internet has drawn criticism.
Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre For The Study Of Radicalisation at King’s College London criticized May noting that social media companies have crecedk down on terrorists accounts which has simply pushed them into using encrypted messenger platforms. In addition:
Moreover, few people radicalised exclusively online. Blaming social media platforms is politically convenient but intellectually lazy.(3)
The UK’s Open Rights Group said:
It is disappointing that in the aftermath of this attack, the Government’s response appears to focus on the regulation of the Internet and encryption.
This could be a very risky approach. If successful, Theresa May could push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe.
But we should not be distracted: the Internet and companies like Facebook are not a cause of this hatred and violence, but tools that can be abused. While governments and companies should take sensible measures to stop abuse, attempts to control the Internet is not the simple solution that Theresa May is claiming.(4)
The internet’s giants took issue with May’s assessment.
“Using a combination of technology and human review, we work aggressively to remove terrorist content from our platform as soon as we become aware of it.”
“We employ thousands of people and invest hundreds of millions of pounds to fight abuse on our platforms.”
Twitter, which suspended over 600,000 terrorist accounts between 2015 and 2016, said “terrorist content has no place” on its site.
- Information Technology Industry Council
Represents tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft and opposes “any policy actions or measures that would undermine encryption as an available and effective tool.”
Eric Jardine, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI), explained that law enforcement uses social media to monitor extremist activity. “Restricting communication on those platforms may also inadvertently remove a source of intel for investigators.”
Finally, as Wired Magazine explains
Scapegoating the internet as the root of the problem risks ignoring the underlying problems: a vast swath of youth that have left behind, bullied, or ignored. (5)
(1) Theresa May accuses internet giants of giving terrorists ‘safe space to breed’ after London Bridge terror attack, The Mirror (June 4, 2017).
(2) Theresa May can’t be trusted to get it right on counter-terrorism policy, The Guardian (June 5, 2017).
(3) Theresa May criticised over `intellectually lazy´ internet regulation proposal, Daily Mail (June 4, 2017).
(4)The London Attacks, Open Rights Group (June 4, 2017).
As Wired Magazine points out:
The internet is often oversold in terms of radicalization,” says Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism expert at RAND. Despite what you’ve heard, he says, most conversations among extremists occur face to face. . . .
(5) Blaming the Internet for Terrorism Misses the Point, Wired Magazine (June 6, 2017).