Theresa May says ‘enough is enough’, and then accuses Facebook, Twitter and Google of providing a “safe space” for terrorists. But it is important, while there is naturally a horrified reaction to recent terrorist attacks, we do not undermine freedom.
Social media is not responsible for terrorism, the terrorists themselves are responsible for that. But it does provide an echo chamber and a way to communicate with many people at a speed that was once impossible.
However, the worst terrorist atrocity in the west – 9/11 – occurred before the social media age.
The dangers of trying to regulate social media are clear, the long term implications are frightening.
Mrs May said: “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.”
She continued: “We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning. We need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online."
It is indeed hard to disagree, but we must tread with care.
She said that the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, through the use of encryption, provide "the safe space [terrorists] needs to breed.”
But the dangers get too easily forgotten.
Attitudes change too. Earlier this decade we celebrated social media for facilitating the Arab Spring, thanks to social media the idea of there being a repeat of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 seems inconceivable – although recent media reports suggest that approval of what happened in 1989 has recently increased in China – is that a result of censorship or a reaction in favour of establishment.
The Open Rights Group warned about using social media to fight terrorism. It said: "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. But we should not be distracted: The Internet and companies like Facebook are not a cause of this 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."
Facebook said: “We want to provide a service where people feel safe. That means we do not allow groups or people that engage in terrorist activity, or posts that express support for terrorism. We want Facebook to be a hostile environment for terrorists. 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. Online extremism can only be tackled with strong partnerships. We have long collaborated with policymakers, civil society, and others in the tech industry, and we are committed to continuing this important work together.”
Nick Pickles, head of public policy for Twitter in the UK, stated: "Terrorist content has no place on Twitter. We continue to expand the use of technology as part of a systematic approach to removing this type of content. We will never stop working to stay one step ahead and will continue to engage with our partners across industry, government, civil society and academia."
But never lose sight of the fact that, horrific though it is, the number of people killed in the west because of social media is relatively small. Terrorist organisations want to create terror, and high profile attacks are a way to do this. The worst possible reaction would be to sacrifice values such as freedom in an effort to fight a curse that remains quite rare as a proportion of the population.
If we undermine the principles of democracy, especially in an age of AI and big data, we give the terrorists what they want.