You can’t fight terrorism with online censorship

As we reel from the third terror attack in Britain in as many months, politicians are scrambling to come up with strategies to make the public feel safer. Amid rows over police cuts, the old debate about online safety has inevitably been revived. Theresa May said, in her speech on Sunday, that internet giants were providing a ‘safe space’ for extremists online. ‘We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning’, she said.

Yesterday, culture secretary Karen Bradley found time in a series of cringeworthy interviews – where she refused to be drawn on police numbers – to reiterate the same censorious point. She urged companies like Google and Facebook to tackle extremist content. ‘We know it can be done and we know the internet companies want to do it’, she told the BBC.

But all of the big internet firms and social-media networks already regulate their content. Google said it was already planning an ‘international forum to accelerate and strengthen our existing work in this area’. In any case, as some commentators have pointed out, any state or international regulation of online content would do little to tackle the problem of terrorism.

The Open Rights Group, a campaign group for online free speech and privacy, said increased regulation could risk pushing terrorists’ ‘vile networks’ into ‘darker corners of the web’. Dr Shiraz Maher from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London said terrorist groups and their supporters have already ‘moved to more clandestine methods’. This is the reality of the situation. However scary it is to know that you can Google a guide on bomb-making, forcing internet companies to remove and regulate such content would simply push it on to the Dark Web or similar, where it becomes harder for security services to investigate sources and followers. There are also no guarantees that being forced to use more clandestine sites would deter would-be terrorists. As Professor Peter Neumann, an ICSR director, tweeted: ‘Blaming social-media platforms is politically convenient but intellectually lazy.’

Home secretary Amber Rudd has also taken the opportunity to insist once again that tech firms provide a ‘back door’ into their end-to-end encryption. She first suggested this in March, after it was discovered that the Westminster attacker, Khalid Masood, had sent a WhatsApp message minutes before carrying out his murderous act. WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, so that only the sender and recipient can read their messages. As tech firms are quick to point out, any ‘back door’ into encrypted messages, which allows the state to hack into a terrorist’s phone, means the same hacking is possible on anyone’s phone. Thus encryption becomes pointless.

May and Co’s calls for online clampdowns should worry us all. This ‘something must be done’ reaction would come at a real cost. It is unclear how internet regulation and snooping would tackle terrorism; what is clear is that such measures would undermine the very freedoms our society holds dear, and which the terrorists want to destroy.

Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht

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