Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary, has held talks with representatives of four of the major tech companies; Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter in an effort to curb online extremism. This follows the terror attack in Westminster where Khalid Masood killed four members of the public and was himself shot dead by police.
Online extremism crackdown
Writing in the Telegraph shortly after the attack she said it is a government priority to tackle web-based radicalisation and to remove extremist content. She said: “Each attack confirms again the role that the internet is playing in serving as a conduit, inciting and inspiring violence, and spreading extremist ideology of all kinds.”
She wants tech companies to collaborate to build technologies that search and remove radical content. Here she carries a big stick as much of the content could be said to incite racial hatred which is against UK law.
She also has concerns about encryption. It emerged that just prior to the Westminster attack, the terrorist used WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service.
She told the BBC: “We need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other…but on this situation, we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.” This is hugely controversial and reflects Apple’s struggle with the FBI last year.
WhatsApp has said it is “co-operating with law enforcement as they continue their investigations”.
Following the meeting the tech companies released a joint statement that set out three initial goals:
“First, to encourage the further development of technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda.”
“Second, to support younger companies that can benefit from the expertise and experiences of more established ones.”
“Third, to support the efforts of civil society organisations to promote alternative and counter-narratives.”
The statement says there is a significant opportunity to develop innovative solutions to online extremism content and that this must be shared with younger companies that can benefit from the knowledge and experience of their bigger more established cousins. They maintain defeating terrorism is not a competitive issue.
Critics have pointed out that there are no timelines, as to how quickly these techniques will be developed, when radical content will be removed and no mention is made at all about tackling the issue of encryption.
Following the meeting Rudd put out an equally anodyne statement which didn’t mention encryption but said she welcomes: “the commitment from the key players to set up a cross-industry forum.”
It is likely the tech giants will want to collaborate and work with government on techniques to remove radical content as this is already tarnishing their reputation and having an effect on their advertising revenues. Encryption is a much thornier issue which neither side looks ready to grasp.