Theresa May calls for internet crackdown in light of London attacks
As predictably as night follows day, the fallout from the horrific terrorist attack in London on Saturday night has turned to the role of the internet may or may not have played in things. Yesterday, prime minister Theresa May reiterated her belief that the internet needs a new approach to tackling extremism.
“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” May said. “Yet that is precisely what the internet and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.”
“We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning,” she continued. “We need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.”
If this all sounds pretty familiar, it may be because the Conservative party has been beating that particular drum for some time. David Cameron must mooted the idea of killing off encryption in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks back in January 2015. Current home secretary Amber Rudd repeated it back in March after the Westminster attack. The Conservative party manifesto hints at changes to the internet which would be nothing short of transformational if voted through, and leaked documents show that privacy is likely to be an early casualty in the battle against terrorism.
You’re on a technology site, so you probably already know what comes next: banning encryption is unworkable, and any politician who claims that it’s some kind of magic bullet is either lying to you, or (to be generous) hasn’t been briefed properly. There is no such thing as a backdoor that only the goodies can use: you break encryption for one, you break it for all. And encryption is necessary for the internet to function.
Still, this latest statement does show slightly more nuance than before, with the “international agreements” part. As WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook and Apple are all based outside of the UK, the British government has no right to tell them what to do, so international agreement is essential to get this madcap plan off the ground. The best the UK could do at the moment is ban any app that allows for encrypted messaging which wouldn’t just hit the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and iMessage – to be thorough, this would block anything that allows encrypted private messaging from ecommerce to dating sites. And even then, prospective terrorists could just jailbreak their phones and sideload banned apps to communicate. Or they could just use pen-and-paper encryption.
When people are casually asked if they agree more should be done to regulate the internet, they’re all for it. As soon as they see what that actually looks like in practice, support rightly drops off a cliff.
Tory aides told Buzzfeed News that a future Conservative government plans to rein in the power of Google and Facebook, but the truth is that battle has already been fought and lost before anyone knew they were fighting. Any government going into an election with a Facebook or Google ban in their manifesto would lose, and the scale of defeat will only get more pronounced as generations who grew up without the internet die out.
Yes, governments can apply pressure to internet giants in order to get them to respect laws and cooperate with law enforcement, but consider recent internal Facebook documents leaked to The Guardian, which say that the company “does not welcome local law that stands as an obstacle to an open and connected world,” and will only remove Holocaust denial content from four out of 14 countries where it’s illegal.
Those don’t sound like a company living in fear of state interference to me. And with good reason: our leaders are not only “all bark and no bite” – they don’t even seem to understand the jaw mechanics of how biting works.