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Mixed reactions to PM's calls to regulate cyber space to prevent terrorism

Prime minister Theresa May’s call for regulation of the internet to prevent terrorism planning has drawn support from some quarters but criticism from others

Hours after the latest attack in London that killed seven and injured dozens more, the prime minister said the internet was a “safe space” for the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism” to breed.

“The UK needs to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyber space to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning. We need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online,” she said.

May also said the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy needs to adapt to the fact the threat is becoming more complex, more fragmented and more hidden, especially online.

“So in light of what we are learning about the changing threat, we need to review Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy to make sure the police and security services have all the powers they need,” she said.

Technology sector association TechUK said tech firms are clear that extremist content has no place on their platforms and they work continually to improve measures to identify and remove such content.

Companies also have well-established procedures to engage closely with law enforcement agencies at times like these to help them in their investigations, the association said in a statement.

“The PM’s speech highlights the importance of international co-operation and the need to work together – industry, governments, law enforcement and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] – to tackle this evolving challenge,” said Antony Walker, deputy chief executive officer of TechUK.

“Tech companies are absolutely committed to working through an international forum to strengthen existing initiatives; improve identification and removal of terrorist propaganda; and promote counter-speech, empowering those with inclusive and positive messages.

“Putting in place the right solutions to combatting the misuse of online platforms is just one part of the jigsaw in tacking extremism. These are highly complex, challenging issues and tech companies are committed to playing their part, working within a clear legal framework and in full recognition of the seriousness of these issues,” he said.

Facebook has issued a statement saying it wants to its social media platform to be a “hostile environment” for terrorists, according to Reuters.

“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 – and if we become aware of an emergency involving imminent harm to someone’s safety, we notify law enforcement,” said Simon Milner, director of policy at Facebook.

Nick Pickles, Twitter’s head of public policy in the UK said in a statement that “terrorist content has no place on Twitter,” according to CNN. Twitter will “never stop working” to prevent events such as the London terror attack from happening again, he said.

Response could push networks into ‘darker corners’

Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock said it was “disappointing” that 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,” he said.

Killock said the internet and companies such as Facebook are not a cause of 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.

“Real results will require attempts to address the actual causes of extremism. For instance, both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May have drawn attention to the importance of finding solutions to the drivers of terrorism in countries including Syria, Iraq and Libya. Debating controls on the internet risks distracting from these very hard and vital questions,” he said.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said in article for the Guardian that the PM’s pledge to regulate the internet risks turning the web into a tool for surveillance and censorship.

“Politicians need to work with technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, and with other countries, to develop solutions that work to keep people safe.

“The alternative is a government that monitors and controls the internet in the way that China or North Korea does. 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,” wrote Farron.

Tories may introduce mass surveillance act

In May 2017, the Open Rights Group leaked documents indicating that after the election, the UK government planned to introduce extreme mass surveillance capabilities.

The documents showed that the government planned to require telecommunications operators to provide real-time access to named individuals’ data through proposed regulations on technical capabilities notices (TCNs) under the controversial Investigatory Powers Act, which was backed by Theresa May as home secretary.

In terms of the IP Act, TCNs can be used to order companies with more than 10,000 UK users to adapt their technology to enable interception and metadata collection.

Theresa May’s latest statements as prime minister have prompted speculation that if the Conservatives win the general election, they will forge ahead with the proposed regulations on TCNs.

The proposed regulations require telcos to ensure they have the technical capabilities to provide assistance in relation to interception warrants, equipment interference warrants, or warrants or authorisations for the obtaining of communications data.

This includes an obligation to “provide and maintain the capability to disclose, where practicable, the content of communications or secondary data in an intelligible form and to remove electronic protection applied by or on behalf of the telecommunications operator to the communications or data, or to permit the person to whom the warrant is addressed to remove such electronic protection,” which appears to require telecos to ensure they can provide access to encrypted information.

Other proposed obligations include having the ability to provide access to “secondary information” about any individual named in a warrant, as well as access to primary data and account content and having the ability to simultaneously intercept or obtain secondary data from communications relating to up to 1 in 10,000 customers.

In short, the proposed regulations sought to give government the authority to monitor anyone in the UK in real time and to make it illegal to apply encryption systems that do not have some form of back door access, raising concerns by the Open Rights Group and other opponents about mass surveillance.

Read more about the IP Act

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