British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to fine internet companies who the UK Government deem to have failed to tackle the issue of online extremism have been compared to the Chinese internet censorship regime by none other than the UK’s own terrorism legislation watchdog.
Max Hill QC, who serves as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, was speaking at the Terrorism and Social Media conference in Swansea. According to a report in the Times newspaper (£), his comments about the latest proposals were scathing in the extreme and showed how the plans could do much more harm than good.
“We do not live in China”
“I struggle to see how it would help if our parliament were to criminalise tech company bosses who ‘don’t do enough’”, said Hill. “How do we measure ‘enough’? What is the appropriate sanction?
Hill will be all too aware of the tendency of western governments to drop vague terminology into online censorship and surveillance legislation in order to give themselves as much wriggle room as possible when the inevitable court cases ensue.
He went on to compare the proposals to the online censorship regime imposed by the Communist regime in China. “We do not live in China, where the internet simply goes dark for millions when the government so decides,” he said. “Our democratic society cannot be treated that way.
Hill is deeply concerned that using threats and coercion will merely drive tech companies away when actually the Government needs to be working closely with them to find effective measures to tackle the issue of online extremism without intruding excessively into the privacy of normal people to do so.
“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,” he explained, whilst at the same time stressing that the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should be doing what they can to remove extremist content.
He also noted that there was a risk of driving extremist material onto the dark web and out of the clutches of intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies if the matter was not dealt with proportionately and sensibly.
The suggestion of fining tech companies was first raised in the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester and even then bore all the hallmarks of a kneejerk reaction to that terrible event rather than a well-thought-through policy proposal.
But as Home Secretary, Theresa May was not shy about using terrorist attacks to push through laws which undermined the civil liberties of British citizens, and there is no reason to think she will be any different as Prime Minister.
Indeed, as we reported earlier this year, the manifesto on which Theresa May sought re-election in the recent British General Election made for deeply worrying reading for privacy advocates with its proposals for online regulation.
And she would not be the first European country to pass such a law even if she was successful. In Germany, the Government now has the power to fine tech companies up to €50 million (£43 million) if they are found to have consistently failed to take down illegal or terrorist related content.
As this is a relatively new power, it remains to be seen the effect it has on changing the relationship between tech companies and the government.
It is reassuring to see an independent overseer of Government feeling confident enough to speak out in this manner when he disagrees with a proposal. Many others in similar roles have not been so forthcoming, although it should be noted that Max Hill QC is a relatively new appointment to the role.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that Theresa May and her allies in the ‘Five Eyes’ countries are determined to use the terrorism threat to try and shackle online freedoms and restrict the use of encryption.
It is unlikely that one outspoken overseer will be able to stop the momentum they are building. Which makes it all the more important for individual internet users to take steps to protect themselves online, by making use of a reputable VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN to encrypted their online activity and hide their identity online.