The Cable

Theresa May Declares War on the Internet, Again

Experts say the British prime minister doesn’t fully understand how radicalization works.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement outside 10 Downing Street in central London on June 4, 2017, following the June 3 terror attack.
Forty-eight people have been taken to hospital after a terror attack in central London in which seven people died, the London Ambulance Service said Sunday. / AFP PHOTO / Justin TALLIS        (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement outside 10 Downing Street in central London on June 4, 2017, following the June 3 terror attack. Forty-eight people have been taken to hospital after a terror attack in central London in which seven people died, the London Ambulance Service said Sunday. / AFP PHOTO / Justin TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the weekend terror attack that left 7 dead in London, Prime Minister Theresa May trotted out a familiar bogeyman: internet companies and their role in helping radicalize youth, and making it easier for terrorists to plot attacks undetected.

Less than 24 hours after Saturday’s attack in central London, May set out an aggressive agenda that squarely challenged companies such as Facebook and Google to do more to combat extremist content online.

“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said, referring to “Islamist extremism.” “Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide,” May added.

May’s remarks came just days before British voters head to the polls on Thursday for a snap election that was initially expected to hand the Tory government a sizeable majority. But polls have tightened in recent weeks, and three major terrorist attacks in three months have done little to boost the campaign of May, a former home security charged with internal security.

Labour Party rival Jeremy Corbyn has attacked May for for overseeing cuts to police budgets during her time as home secretary; attacking the role in radicalization played social media and internet firms may provide May with a convenient scapegoat — and a way to parry those attacks.

But big internet companies are pushing back against the notion they’ve been lax about fighting extremism online. Google said it stands shoulder to shoulder with May in its “commitment to ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online.” The company added in a statement that it is examining additional ways to restrict content online.

Facebook said it pulls extremist content as soon as it becomes aware of the material. Social media giant Twitter said that it is working more aggressively to shutter extremist profiles, which have in the past been used as a recruiting mechanism for the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack.

But scholars of violent Islamist groups are skeptical of the degree to which internet firms, rather than a host of other factors, are the main driver behind radicalization.

“To think this kind of radicalization to violence is caused strictly by videos online is to miss the point entirely,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior fellow studying radicalization at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank.

“While social media has indeed increased the speed and scope of terrorist group messaging, the way these messages trickle down to youth and galvanize people to act depends on their offline networks, their backgrounds, and their individual biographies,” he said.

The debate over the internet and terrorism boils down to two main issues: Radical content and terrorist communications.

The availability of radical or extremist content online — such as the influential lectures of the American cleric Anwar al Awlaki, or the slick video productions of the Islamic State — make the embrace of violent ideology easier and more accessible than ever. But long before the internet was widely available, Islamist radicals were able to spread their sermons and galvanize new followers: Awlaki, like al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, used cassette tapes to spread their message to followers in decades past. Further back, old-fashioned books  — like Egyptian jihadi Said Qutb’s 1966 jailhouse memoir Milestones — served much the same purpose.

But at the same time, the availability of end-to-end encryption in popular messaging applications has made it harder for authorities to decipher the communications between terror suspects. Facebook, for example, has adopted sophisticated encryption technology for its WhatsApp messenger that prevents the company from decoding its users’ messages, even when presented with a valid warrant to do so.

Other, smaller outfits provide just as sophisticated technology. The messaging app Signal provides the same level of security as WhatsApp but takes a far more skeptical view of government requests for data. Other communications tools, such as Russia’s Telegram, provide encrypted messaging technology and base their operations outside of U.S. jurisdiction.

May, who before becoming prime minister last year served six years as home secretary, has tried to crack down on both content and communication. She was the principal author of a highly aggressive intelligence bill passed into law last year — dubbed the “Snooper’s Charter” by her critics — that authorized sweeping hacking powers and bulk data collection by British authorities.

British authorities are currently fine-tuning that measure’s proposals for getting around encryption. In a draft regulation leaked last month, U.K. authorities will require companies with more than 10,000 British users to “provide and maintain the capability to disclose, where practicable, the content of communications or secondary data in an intelligible form and to remove electronic protection applied by or on behalf of the telecommunications operator to the communications or data.”

That is, the proposed regulation would require companies to be able to decrypt the content of their customers’ messages, and would deliver May one of the investigatory powers she has been desperately seeking.

“She is gearing up for a fight with the internet companies about what they encrypt and how they encrypt,” Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, which leaked the draft regulation, told FP.

The spread of technology such as encrypted messaging presents a real dilemma for governments of all stripes. On the one hand, more widespread availability of encryption improves security at a time of pervasive hacking. On the other, the easier availability of secure messaging makes it harder for investigators trying to sniff out terror plots.

But scholars of radicalization argue that the emphasis on such technology has been misplaced.

“These things don’t happen in a vacuum,” Amarasingam said. Like child pornography and other kinds of illegal content, he said, the companies need to act quickly and remove the material. “But it is far from the only issue and, I think most scholars would argue, it’s far from being the most important one either.”

JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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