Weeding Terror Out Of The Internet Undergrowth

June 6, 2017
3 mins read

The UK Government proposes internet regulations to combat terror attacks. It’s a tactic that won’t work, writes PAT PILCHER.


UK PM Theresa May announced plans to bring new online anti-terror laws into play in the aftermath of the weekend’s terror attacks in central London.

Critics were swift to respond, with some accusing May of using public outrage from the attack to push an agenda of internet censorship ahead of the UK general election.

The most vocal critic has been UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbin. He says of May that she “…cannot protect the public on the cheap. The police and security services must get the resources they need, not 20,000 police cuts.”

The weekend’s terror attack saw seven people killed only days before the general election. Addressing media gathered outside of 10 Downing St, May said that internet companies must not give extremism a place to exist:

“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,” she said.

While the specifics of just how May intends to police the internet have yet to be fully revealed, May was quoted as saying that: “We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.”

May’s call for an online crackdown comes after the UK recently introduced the Investigatory Powers Act, 2016 – dubbed by opponents as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – which greatly expands the online surveillance powers of UK intelligence agencies.

There is no debate that the attacks were horrific. That said, internet censorship as proposed under May is unlikely to be an effective means of combating it.

Could she be placing too much emphasis on the internet? Peter Neumann, a professor specialising in political violence and radicalisation at King’s College in London, was quoted by CNN as saying that very few terrorists are radicalised online. Neumann also said that any government crackdown on extremists online will probably push their activities onto encrypted messaging platforms, making it far more difficult to monitor their activities.

There is also a large body of historical evidence that May’s measures are unlikely to work. Similarly draconian measures were used by the UK government several years ago to attempt to curb piracy and internet porn. This saw the UK government forcing ISPs to block access to file sharing and adult content sites. The move was largely unsuccessful thanks to freely available tools such as VPNs (virtual private networks) which provided a simple means of bypassing the internet blockade.

While May’s media comments are likely to resonate with outraged voters, the reality is that her proposed internet crackdown is likely to be ineffectual or worse: it could even have the opposite effect to what she is touting.

Radicals planning attacks are only likely to move to solutions that employ end-to-end encryption. Even if messaging applications employing end-to-end encryption are banned in the UK, sourcing these apps from outside the UK is likely to be criminally easy. Even if a ban is successful, radicals could choose to keep their activities offline.

May was quoted as saying: “We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements to regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.”

This rhetoric may grab headlines and might even appeal to voters at face value, but the logistics behind it are massively daunting. Sifting through exabytes of data to find extremists planning attacks on a timely proactive basis simply isn’t likely to be practical. At best, it’d be a mammoth task involving multiple platforms, countries and herculean data mining efforts. Then there’s also the not so insignificant matter that similar measures already in use are not working.

Data from EU regulators show that social media platforms such as Twitter are already struggling to find and remove hate speech posts – even after they’ve been flagged. Both Facebook and YouTube are unable to locate and remove up to 44 percent of reported hate speech. There are no statistics for unreported hate speech. If the largest social media platforms are already struggling, it is fair to assume that the outlook for the measures proposed by May probably isn’t all that promising.

So despite a growing body of evidence that the call for greater online policing won’t work, the weekend’s terror attacks may soon see moves to ban encrypted messaging services, and greater surveillance measures in the UK gaining prominence, with May touting technology as the core means to fighting terror and extremism. Only time will tell if she is right.

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.

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