Theresa May accuses internet companies of giving extremists a ‘safe place’ to hide

Theresa May has accused internet companies of giving extremists a “safe space” to hide as she expressed renewed determination to crack down on web giants. Speaking outside Downing Street in the wake of the London attacks, the prime minister launched her strongest assault on the role Facebook, Twitter and Google/YouTube play in fomenting extremism.

“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said. “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.”

The Conservative Party’s manifesto vows to make Britain “the global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet” and called for the same rules that govern life offline to apply online.

The document proposed preventing the industry from directing users to hate speech, even unintentionally, and called for internet companies “to develop technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda.”

Although this legislation was proposed years ago, the recent attacks in London and Manchester have put it firmly in the spotlight. It sets the context for an easier passage through parliament, and shows the government is reacting. It also, some argue, deflects from more basic issues such as police funding.

After the Westminster terrorist attack in March Amber Rudd, the home secretary, raised the prospect of cracking down on encrypted messages sent on programmes such as WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. The messaging company says its service is so secure that no one but the sender and recipient can see a message, not even WhatsApp itself.

But Whitehall is understood to be more concerned about extremist content available on the internet, and how the spread of footage of attacks can inspire copycat attacks. It is certainly what mainstream media is focused on, judging by various headlines around how quickly guidance to terrorists can be found on the likes of Google and YouTube. But the notion of a terror attack being based on instructions from a YouTube video seems more fitting with a plotline from Four Lions than actually addressing a serious problem.

There is the very real possibility that cracking down on communications on the open web will only push conversations into parts of the web (from ‘the dark web,’ to multiple messaging platforms beyond WhatsApp) that are much more difficult to monitor.

Whether this crackdown is just a political tool or a comment on the obvious remains to be seen, the real talking will be done when budgets are laid out and the investment in cyber security research, funding and recruitment is increased beyond the £1.9bn plan put forward last year as part of the National Cyber Security Strategy.