The UK government wants to regulate the internet.
In a speech delivered in the aftermath of the London Bridge attacks, which resulted in the death of seven civilians, Theresa May exposed her desire to regulate technology companies in what she said was an attempt to crackdown on extremist content posted online.
“Defeating this ideology is one of the great challenges of our time, but it cannot be defeated through military intervention alone.
“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 extremism and terrorist planning. And we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online,” the PM said.
This, however, is not the first time the PM – or her party – has spoken in favour of being able to control what people share and post online, particularly in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.
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May recently urged G7 leaders to ask technology companies such as Google and Facebook to increase their efforts to combat online extremism.
During her tenure as Home Secretary, May championed the introduction of the controversial Investigatory Powers Act (otherwise known as ‘Snoopers’ Charter’), which was signed into law last year. According to critics, the Act gives the government unprecedented surveillance powers unmatched by that of any other country in Western Europe or the USA.
‘A disappointing response’
The Open Rights Group, a UK-based organisation that seeks to safeguard digital rights and freedoms, doesn’t agree with May’s proposals to regulate the online sphere.
A statement published by Jim Killock, the executive director, said:
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“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,” continues the post.
Despite many assuming that the entirety of the internet is accessible, the truth is that just 4% of it can be reached via search engines such as Google. The remaining 96% forms part of the dark web – an encrypted network that exists between Tor servers and their clients – and is renown for its association with criminal activities.
So, even if the Tories won the general election, scheduled to take place on 8th June, and their plans to regulate cyberspace were implemented, the government would only really be able to control what happens in a minuscule section of the internet, as criminals and terrorists would most likely continue to exploit the anonymity afforded by the dark web and find alternative ways to carry out illicit activities.
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End-to-end encryption is being increasingly used by some of the world’s biggest technology firms to prevent the interception and decoding of messages by law enforcement and others.
In so doing, technology firms say they are protecting users’ privacy, but some have claimed encryption is enabling terrorists to communicate under the radar.
Fervent privacy advocates have long argued that there’s no other alternative if communication between civilians is to remain safe and private. In fact, Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook even went as far as saying that building a backdoor to encryption was the “software equivalent of cancer“.
Although she’s since denied it, Home Secretary Amber Rudd was criticised after she called for encryption to be banned following the Westminster attacks, which resulted in the killing of four pedestrians and one police officer back in March.
Speaking on the Andrew Marr show at the end of May, Rudd claimed she had never suggested end-to-end encryption should be banned in its entirety.
“What I have always said is the internet provides an incredibly important place for people to do business, encryption is important for banking, for everything else as you say,” Rudd said. “But we need to do better to stop terrorists being able to use it.”
She then went on to highlight that the government had made good progress with some firms that use end-to-end encryption.
“Some of them are being more constructive than others, but we will continue to build on that.
“The area that I am most concerned about is the internet companies who are continuing to publish the hate publications, the hate material that is contributing to radicalising people in this country.”
Not the answer
James Gupta, founder and CEO of Leeds-based EdTech startup Synap, spoke to Tech City News about the government’s apparent lack of technology expertise and criticised its short-sighted approach.
“I’m someone who really wants to vote Conservative, but Theresa May seems to be doing everything she can to put me off. Her suggestions of banning encryption show a shocking lack of understanding of how the internet works, which is unacceptable for a leader in 2017,” he said.
Even if May’s proposals were feasible, which they’re not, Gupta said, regulating the internet would not help to prevent terrorism.
“Bad people will just find a way around the law, meanwhile UK industry would be decimated, while key services the UK tech sector relies on, such as Github, would be made illegal.
“Either May actually believes this is possible and desirable, or she is just engaging in political grandstanding. In either case, it’s concerning,” added the entrepreneur.
For the most part, technology giants have fought back against the PM’s comments.
Facebook, which has been criticised for failing to provide adequate support and pay to its moderators, condemned the attacks and said it sought to be a “hostile environment for terrorists”.
A statement by its policy director, Simon Milner, said: “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.”
Google and Twitter also published statements outlining how they would seek to prevent extremist views from spreading on their platforms.
Vince Warrington, director of cybersecurity firm Protective Intelligence, conceded that large technology companies could probably do a lot more to combat extremist content, but added that the mere suggestion the internet could be regulated evidenced a fundamental lack of understanding as to how the global network operates.
“What May is really alluding to is the long-held desire of successive UK governments to allow the breaking of encryption, purportedly for reasons of national security but which would end up being much wider reaching.
“Everyone who uses the internet has a perfectly legitimate reason for using encryption – indeed, we’d make the internet a lot less safe a place to do business without it. Think of it this way: the government wants to have a set of keys to every house in the UK so it can come and go in as it pleases, just on the minuscule chance you’re a terrorist.
“Of course they will say it’s for the common good, and that they’ll protect the keys, but recent history (Wikileaks, Snowden, Shadow Brokers) has shown that it’s probable that any tinkering with end-to-end encryption will eventually be leaked, allowing anyone to access your confidential data.”
May’s strongly worded statement in the aftermath of the attack doesn’t necessarily spell good news for the UK tech industry – a sector left reeling following last year’s Brexit referendum results – but it’s certainly not written in stone. As Britain heads to the polls in a matter of days, it’s up to the people to decide who should be the country’s next PM. In the meantime, May and her government are left to deal with the implications of three consecutive terror attacks in as almost many months.