Libertarians believe that liberty is the foundation of security; securocrats tend to think the opposite. Ministers’ criticism of social media over their treatment of terrorism and extremism provides an opportunity to test the arguments either way.
The Government has two main complaints. One is relatively narrow; the other rather broader. The first arises from last week’s terror attack in Westminster. Khalid Masood is believed to have been on What’sApp immediately before carrying out his crimes. The messages could reveal whether or not he was acting under instruction from ISIS or another terror group. Amber Rudd says that the company and others should make such messages available to the security services if presented by them with a warrant. The second is directed at Google, which owns YouTube, and at Twitter – and at other social media too. The Government view is that the companies concerned are far too slow to take down terrorist and extremist propaganda material. Let us probe these concerns in turn.
Handing over Masood’s messages to the security services would mean breaching WhatApp’s end-to-end encryption. The company insists that this cannot be done – that its encryption works in such a way that no-one save the sender and the receiver of a message can read it. Ministers dispute this claim. But even if they are right, breaking open end-to-end encryption, as it is known, would be deeply problematic. To do so would be a bit like opening up a path to a house. Were this to happen, the security services would indeed be able to travel down it. So, however, might others – the agencies serving the Chinese and Russian Governments, for example, not to mention non-state hackers and criminals.
Furthermore, as Andrew Bower has written on this site, were What’sApp’s encryption to be opened up, or the service itself to be closed down altogether, terrorists using it would simply switch to what he called “thousands of equivalent products”. We all rely on encryption to protect our assets and identity. So while we might cheer today were What’sApp to open a door in its encryption, for the purpose of going after Masood, we would all boo tomorrow, and much more loudly, were our data to be hacked and compromised
But if the Government is in danger of losing its footing over What’sApp and encryption, it stands on firmer ground over terrorist material. The companies worry that Ministers want them to weed out, say, terrorist videos and tweets before these are published rather than afterwards. They say that it would be impossible to offer the service that they currently provide on this basis: what would go up would do so too slowly to be of use. It is hard to reach a judgement without knowing more about what staff and resources they could make available.
However, the argument about post-publication rather than pre-publication action is more straightforward. Google already removes a lot of content – 92 million YouTube videos last year, apparently. But there is always more that could be done. The Government has a real grievance when it says that the companies seem faster to act on material that promotes child abuse, for example, rather than terror – where they appear to be more sensitive to concerns about free speech. Clearly, the companies prefer government and others to refer terrorist material to them, and for them then to act, rather than spend more time and money tracking it down themselves.
To cut a long story short, there is no commercial reason why Google, and the other great international companies of our age, should get really tough with terrorist organisations. It is true that they don’t want to get on the wrong side of governments, or risk a backlash from consumers. But they operate on so big a scale, basing themselves in countries where arrangements on tax and privacy are to their liking, that they can afford to do less than they might. They thus provide the latest reason to reheat the age-old argument about whether such companies are “the unacceptable face of capitalism” – possessing power without responsibility.
In the last resort, western governments would have to act together, in concert, were it necessary to close down companies such as What’sApp, or take control of social media in the way that, say, China’s government does: that is the potential sweep and scale of the challenge of Islamist extremism. But is almost impossible to see this happening, given the free speech protections woven into America’s constitution. And, in any event, we are a very long way indeed from such measures being required. Moreover, government cannot be relied upon even as matters stand to get policy right. For example, Downing Street and the Home Office have clearly failed to agree a definition of extremism – which explains why the Bill to tackle it promised in the Queen’s Speech has not materialised.
A vital policy lesson since 7/7 is that there is no legislative short-cut to countering terrorism. Rather, we are reliant on the long haul of recruiting a growing force of spies and informers. Ministers should bear that in mind as they mull further legislation.