We do not live in China, says PM’s own watchdog as he hits out at move to fine web giants
Theresa May’s plans to fine technology companies for failing to remove extremist material online have been likened to the actions of a Chinese dictator by her own counterterrorism watchdog. Max Hill, QC, cast doubt over the effectiveness of the proposal to “criminalise” companies such as Google and Facebook, warning it could force them “offside” when co-operation was badly needed. He suggested the move could drive dangerous content underground and make prosecutions more difficult.
How do we measure ‘enough’? What is the appropriate sanction?
Mr Hill, the new independent reviewer of counterterrorism legislation, told a conference: “I struggle to see how it would help if our parliament were to criminalise tech company bosses who ‘don’t do enough’. How do we measure ‘enough’? What is the appropriate sanction? We do not live in China, where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides. Our democratic society cannot be treated that way.” His comments will come as a blow to the government, which has placed the options of fines at the centre of its plans to combat the rise of extremism. Mrs May has also raised the prospect of new offences to defeat radicals but Mr Hill said: “We do not lack for legal powers to bring these cases to court”.
Technology companies have come under sustained pressure to do more about the online availability of jihadist propaganda and attack guides for would-be terrorists.
The Times revealed that Salman Abedi, the Manchester suicide bomber, used videos from YouTube and other websites to help to build the device that killed 22 people.
Mrs May announced the option of fining technology companies after three attacks on British soil in ten weeks — the Manchester attack and atrocities at Westminster and London Bridge. She met President Macron of France last month to discuss creating a “legal liability” for companies that fail to do enough to combat terrorism.
However, Mr Hill, at the Terrorism and Social Media conference in Swansea, called for a different approach. He said there was a need for “ever greater liaison and co-operation between law enforcement and tech companies”, adding that the latter should “strain every muscle” to stem the flow of extremist material online. “Companies who make eye-watering sums of money from our everyday chatter need to be brought firmly onside, they do not need to be forced offside.”
We do not live in China, where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides
Mr Hill warned of the dangers of driving offensive material into places like the dark web, where it could be accessed by would-be terrorists but not by law enforcement. The vast majority of terrorism prosecutions now rely heavily on social media exchanges.
Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC, a predecessor of Mr Hill, agreed that fining companies should be a “last resort”. He added, however: “The technology companies need to be taking very seriously what the prime minister said. They need to be very much aware of how strongly the government feels, and how strongly many experts feel that they have much more to do than they have done so far.”
A new law in Germany means that companies face fines of up to €50 million (£43 million) if they persistently fail to remove illegal content. Facebook responded by saying it “will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem”.
A Home Office spokeswoman said that internet companies should be going “further and faster” to tackle extremist propaganda and welcomed last week’s creation of a forum by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube to tackle the issue.