The UK government wants to force Google and Facebook to take terrorist content seriously. Good luck with that

The government wants terrorist-related content removed within two hours, but its position isn’t the strongest

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In the light of the attempted terrorist attack at Parson’s Green underground station, the government is on the offensive again – targeting companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook for their part in the easy spread of terrorist-friendly content. Or rather, the way their algorithms exist to make customers’ lives easier – even if those customers happen to be intent on taking lives.

Rather than pursuing the unwinnable battle against encryption, this time the government is attacking what many see as terrorist-enablers: search engines and social networks. Search engines such as Google and Bing index terrorist-related content as soon as it’s created, making it easy for potentially dangerous people to find. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook, for their part, facilitate the easy spread of propaganda. And apparently, the UK is the number-one spot in Europe for clicks on links that promote a jihadi terror agenda.

Retailers aren’t immune either. Just yesterday, it was revealed that Amazon had been recommending that customers buy materials to complete a homemade bomb if it looked like they were filling their shopping basket with related items.

To that end, the UK – along with France and Italy – is loudly announcing its intentions to trigger an internet crackdown. The three countries are calling upon social networks and search engines to take down terrorist material within two hours. The governments are prepared to talk tough on the issue, giving the internet companies a month to show they’re taking the problem seriously. The heavy implication is that the governments will pass laws to force the issue with fines, if they’re deemed to have not made enough progress by the time world leaders convene at a G7 meeting on 20 October.

"These companies have some of the best brains in the world,” a Downing Street source told the BBC. “They should really be focusing on what matters, which is stopping the spread of terrorism and violence.”

An unwinnable battle?

Overlooking the fact that the government can only hope to have any kind of influence on what goes on above the dark web, it’s questionable how effective this strategy can be. There has been an enormous shift in power over the past decade, and while governments may think they’re only now turning their guns on internet giants to fight for supremacy, the truth is that this battle was fought and lost long before they even realised they were competing.

Yes, the government can fine social networks – or it can try, anyway: few are actually based in the UK. But more important than that is the fact that Facebook has two billion customers worldwide. Google doesn't release user numbers, but it likely has even more – not even counting the fact that it owns YouTube. The population of the UK is around 65 million; ultimately it would be limited skin off Facebook’s nose if it decided to abandon the UK market. You really don’t want to be the government holding the parcel when Facebook, Google and YouTube are banned: the electoral repercussions at the ballot box would be quick and brutal.

Internet companies aren’t stupid. They know that they hold all the power in this relationship – witness how Facebook moderators were encouraged to ignore local laws on Holocaust denial because it got in the way of the company’s mission statement.

So why press the point so hard? Partly because it’s objectively the right thing to do. Companies have a moral responsibility to use their immense power for good, and it’s definitely true that their better natures can be appealed to – as long as it doesn’t end up looking like a witch hunt (The Daily Mail’s recent front page accusing Google of having "blood on their hands" would probably irk the company, if it became a habit). Unlike ending encryption, which is patently ludicrous for anyone with more than a cursory understanding of these things, stronger censorship is pretty measured and comparatively easy to do.

The second point is that this is something Theresa May really cares about – she did, after all, spend six years working at the Home Office, routinely receiving briefings on terrorist threats. Back in the heady days of May 2017, when the Conservative Party was expected to romp home to a three-figure majority at the imminent General Election, the party had all kinds of plans to clamp down on Google and Facebook’s supremacy. But when that majority evaporated on the morning of 8 June, the pretty flimsy illusion of being able to talk tough vanished with it.

Ironically, though, this total lack of government authority means more parliamentary time is likely to be devoted to the thorny issue of online radicalisation. Why? Because it’s one of the few safe topics where the government can be sure they won’t lose any embarrassing votes. Anything with the hint of being divisive (stubborn Brexit-shaped elephant in the room aside) is kicked into the long grass, leaving space wide open for counter-terrorism grandstanding. Nobody in parliament is in favour of terrorism (despite David Cameron’s previous dubious stirring), so this kind of thing spells easy wins with thumping Commons majorities that don’t further damage May’s stability.

But don’t be under any illusions that this means the government is actually shifting the balance of power. Facebook and Google will almost certainly make the right noises, but it will be for PR reasons and a sense of duty rather than any fear of repercussions. You only need to look at the way American politicians fawningly sucked up to Amazon when the company announced it would be opening a new office to see where the power really lies.

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