May's response to terror shows she doesn't understand the internet

"What May proposed was a pre-existing manifesto policy intended to dismantle the internet as it currently exists"
"What May proposed was a pre-existing manifesto policy intended to dismantle the internet as it currently exists"

By Guy French

As Theresa May strode out to address the press following an all too familiar chain of events, an all too familiar line of response beckoned. What followed suggests that May understands neither the methods used by terrorists to evade surveillance nor their way of looking at the world. Not only has she no idea how to stop them but she has no idea what she's talking about.

Enough is enough, the prime minister said. Quite so.

The takeaways of the four point plan to address the changing face of extremism on home soil were: cross-border regulations of the free internet, removal of safe havens, tough conversations and longer prison sentences. Some of this is tolerable, even sensible. It is crucial that platforms promoting fundamentalist literature and hate speech be blocked and their sources pursued, and cooperation will be needed to achieve this. To a limited extent, messaging services that encrypt communications and allow extremism to hide in plain sight must be scrutinised in the short-term.


However, what May proposed was a pre-existing manifesto policy intended to dismantle the internet as it currently exists, to empower authorities with the directive to censor wide-ranging freedoms of expression. She would seek to capitalise on a tragedy in order to launch an ideologically driven and long sought after internet regulation which encompasses far more than tackling terrorism. It directly concedes the freedoms which terrorism aims to destroy. This borders on intellectual suicide.

With the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act, the volume and detail of personal history, tendencies, and movements that is now readily available to the British government without warrant or court order on each and every citizen of the UK is many times more comprehensive than the data archived by the Stasi at the height of the East German state. It has failed to keep Britain safe.

It is a long held view of the former home secretary that the creation of a government controlled version of the internet, something akin to the censorship seen in China, is the key to adapting to the threats of the modern world. As such, this was made a signature policy objective in the 2017 Conservative manifesto and has been a regular talking point at campaign events. It pledges to make Britain "the global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet".

It is an incredible view to express among close friends, never mind openly. But the justification for the range of content the plans would regulate has varied as widely as the breadth of the the regulation itself. Specific, effective regulation to remove hate speech and radicalising material is essential. Broad-stroke censorship, on the other hand, is what extremists want. If you hold the view - as you should - that moderate Muslims should not be tarred with the same brush as extremists, you cannot simultaneously argue that all citizens must be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as persons of interest. They are ultimately the same argument.

Internet based services - namely messaging services - which encrypt data end-to-end have been the subject of major scrutiny over the past couple of years. The FBI's public dispute with Apple while attempting to force the decryption of the San Bernadino killer's device brought the issue to the fore in 2015, with the technology giant becoming an unlikely champion of customer privacy. Following the Westminster attack in March, current home secretary Amber Rudd singled out WhatsApp and similar services as a facilitator of terrorist communications and demanded that the state have a back door into their system. If you understand even the basics of end-to-end encryption apps, you will see how embarrassing these comment are. They betray a profound ignorance of the number of hidden spaces available and how simple it is to create a new encrypted communication channel, a process which requires about 15 minutes.

This type of regulation of service providers simply starts a game of cat and mouse, as one service after another becomes compromised - driving extremists further from view while compromising the privacy of all other service users in its wake. That is assuming that they don't stop using traceable technology to communicate altogether.

Years of exposure to Home Office intelligence have - understandably perhaps - bred a desire for control and a loathing for legal red-tape in the prime minister. May intends to use the failings of surveillance and intelligence-gathering to justify greater powers of surveillance and intelligence gathering across the whole of the population. Removing "safe spaces" only ever creates a temporary, avoidable obstacle for those it targets. For everyone else, it removes privacy indefinitely.

There is a bigger question behind the London attack. Who sees extremist material and is inspired to follow the cause? Why are specific groups disproportionately represented among those converted to radicalism?

Olivier Roy, among the top European experts on Islamist extremism, suggest the "identity vacuum" left by a failure to assimilate in an adopted western society causes young, second-generation Muslims to be disproportionately represented among radicalised Jihadis. For years there have been warnings of the failures of both immigrant communities and the British government to facilitate integration, which have largely gone unheeded. These failures predate the internet as the dominant tool of communication and will continue to feed and spread existing problems if left unresolved. This is by no means apologism, but an attempt to identify those most likely to fall prey to preachers of hate, so that they might be redirected. You must know your enemy.

The difficult and embarrassing conversations mentioned in May’s speech are ones she and her Cabinet are currently avoiding at all cost. Pressure has been mounting on the justifications of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, who would likely be implicated in the government report David Cameron commissioned on the roots and sponsors of domestic extremism, were it to be published.

It is understandable why governments might wish to limit the potential of a medium that provides almost limitless potential to affect change, but to attack the freedoms of citizens already at the mercy of one of the most comprehensive surveillance apparatus in the world suggests a deeply flawed moral code. The reality of the modern world is that the shifting sands of technological progress will always outpace adaptation. Should authorities keep up for a while, decimated police forces will not be able to perform basic intelligence gathering on the ground when extremists avoid technology altogether. While the ideology exists, threats will slip through the cracks. Patching holes when they are already out of date will not stop radicalism without addressing its sponsors and root causes.

The internet is a mirror of the world in which we live, and how democracies manage its power will define how democratic they remain.

Guy French is a freelance copywriter and entrepreneur, working in the emergent technology space, with interests in intelligence frameworks, cyber-security and politics.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Comments

Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.

Newsletter update