The fight against extremist content online is, for a multitude of reasons, complicated. Questions about responsibility, definitions, and jurisdiction abound – our greatest challenge is striking a between the values we hold dear and the realities of the world that we live in.
Today, the local is global and global is local, activity online directly impacts life offline and where technologies that facilitate global communication and commerce are turned into weapons of ideological warfare. In an age of hyper-connectivity, the fight against extremist content online hinges on striking a balance between security and liberty.
Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking after the London Bridge terror attack, was clear on her stance: “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed.” She also stated that there was a need to “regulate” the online space.
This, however, has not gone down well with the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who has described such plans as draconian and undemocratic. Max Hill QC, who operates independently of the Government and the Civil Service, said that taking such action would be akin to Chinese government policy, “where the internet simply goes dark for millions.”
In Hill’s opinion, not only is government regulation of the internet inherently opposed to our democratic values but that pursuing action against the multinational tech companies would be difficult and comes with the risk of pushing these important partners away, when in fact there needs to be greater cooperation.
However, describing government efforts to regulate the internet as being undemocratic is misleading. Regulation online, in some form or another, already exists. The ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ act, introduced by the European Commission in 2014, compels tech firms to remove content about an individual or organization that may be deemed factually incorrect, outdated, or misleading.
These measures did not lead to a total breakdown in the relationship between the EU and the tech companies, it did not lead to a withdrawal of business from EU territories, nor did it inhibit the general freedoms provided by the internet. Regulation of this nature, accompanied with an agreed definition of what constitutes extremist or terrorist content, would help provide clarity for tech companies.
Robert Hannigan, the former head of GCHQ believes that the internet was not designed with security in mind. Therefore in order to protect users, there is a need to work with the technology companies, with whom the balance of power lies, but also to formulate some form of soft-touch regulation.
This is exactly the kind of government response that is needed. It is not about working against technology companies, but rather about working alongside technology companies against a common threat. This is a matter of bringing the rule of law into the online space.
The Government’s Minister of State for Digital, Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, believes the internet is not a value-free environment, and that the relentless evolving nature of the world we live in requires us to pursue liberty and security in all domains. The same restrictions that govern hate speech, extremism, and terrorist activity offline, should also be applied online.
These are the types of constructive conversations that need to take place if we are to succeed in making the internet a safer environment for young people and a hostile place for extremists. Radicalisation is complex and not exclusively an online phenomenon, but there remains a need to take action to make the internet safer for all.
Introducing regulation to ensure extremist content doesn’t appear online is not an attack on our civil liberties, nor is it an assault on technology companies. Government and tech firms have shown a willingness to work together; there isn’t a question of ‘onside’ or ‘offside,’ as Max Hill believes. Both are already on the same side.
The balancing act between security and liberty is delicate. But it is absolutely essential to ensure that internet users not only have the freedom to do what they wish but that they are able to do so safely. In order to maximise the multitude of benefits the internet has to offer, it is necessary to address the problems posed by those who wish to exploit it.