Theresa May’s call for new international agreements to regulate the internet and “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” is as useless as it is chilling. In a free society such as ours, it is not possible to intern potential terrorists virtually, so any regulation would involve mass surveillance — a move which the British people, rightly, would not tolerate.
As those who study extremism have repeatedly pointed out, the relationship between radicalisation and the consumption of jihadist propaganda online is neither straightforward nor inevitable. A man does not decide to attack crowds of people enjoying themselves in central London on a warm Saturday night just because he happened to watch an online video of the “brutality porn” for which Isis is well known. Terrorism existed before the advent of WhatsApp and YouTube, and it will continue to exist regardless of the restrictions imposed by the Government on our digital platforms.
Blaming extremist attacks on social media and the internet may make good politics but it leads to bad policy. It would be far better for politicians to consider the motives that really drive potential jihadists and the many routes that lead them to their final deadly actions.
This isn’t the first time May has tried to impose regulations on our internet usage. In 2012 she drafted the Communications Data Bill, also known as the Snoopers’ Charter, that was meant to force British internet service providers to retain huge amounts of data on their customers and make it readily available to the Government. At the time, she was unsuccessful in passing the bill in that form — but if history has taught us anything it’s that, in the wake of terrorism, citizens’ right to privacy becomes a lower priority. This is the perfect time for May to introduce the regulations she’s been desperate to impose for years.
Jeremy Corbyn calls for Theresa May to resign as Prime Minister
Fear-based legislation is easy to implement but hard to take back. As seen by the incredible power given, in secret, to the National Security Agency during George W. Bush’s presidency, the “war on terror” was remarkably useful in convincing us that extreme government surveillance is acceptable.
There is a way for the UK to police the internet without such invasive regulation. Rather than relying on social media platforms’ patchy attempts at self-regulation, the Government could devote resources to online criminality, treating it just the same as offline. Just like the bobbies who patrol Britain’s streets and stand guard at airports, railway stations and Government buildings, online police officers should each have their internet beat, including chat rooms, community forums and messaging services popular with jihadists, such as Telegram and Kik.
Online policing would allow for nuanced intelligence-gathering, rather than simply giving the Government the right to watch over the private communications of every citizen at will. Online patrols would look for evidence of criminal behaviour, rather than expressions of political and religious belief.
Of course, the creation of such a force would raise issues about safeguarding individual privacy and personal freedoms, but online search warrants for social media accounts would provide protection from sweeping surveillance. They would need to be justified the same way as expected when the police wish to enter someone’s home.
Ahead of this week’s election, and after two terrorist attacks in as many weeks, May’s threat to curtail our right to privacy may have gone largely unnoticed. But, now more than ever, we need to be vigilant — against the terrorist threat and the threat posed by a Prime Minister with a long-standing agenda of digital surveillance.