Tech Companies Face Pressure to Combat Terrorism Online

In the wake of terrorist attacks perpetrated against the good people of England, Prime Minister Theresa May has chastised internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter for not doing enough to prevent propaganda and communications between extremist groups.

On June 12, the British Prime Minister, fresh from an embarrassing defeat of her party at the national polls, traveled to France to meet with President Emmanuel Macron and discuss a plan to deal with internet companies that, in their view, fail to eliminate digital content that may be considered to incite hate, extremism, intolerance, and terror.

In recent years, the United Kingdom and France have been besieged by deadly terror attacks in Paris, Nice, Manchester, and London; for this reason, it is very likely that the leaders of these two nations will agree on an initiative to hold tech companies accountable for allowing the dissemination of extremist material. Sizable monetary fines and admonishments have been suggested by the British Prime Minister as well as by the young French President.

The three aforementioned companies have been quick to respond to criticism by Prime Minister May. In September 2016, all three companies joined forces with Microsoft for the purpose of developing a method of identifying certain digital fingerprints associated with extremist material; the fingerprints would be collected in a shared database to enable an automated process of elimination. Artificial intelligence scripts would identify and flag the offending content for automatic deletion.

When it comes to policing their platforms and checking for digital content or communications that may advance the cause of terror groups, tech companies face the following challenges:

Cryptography and Encryption

This is a very thorny issue between governments and internet companies because it deals with communications. There was a time when only a few internet applications such as internet banking were encrypted; however, the revelations about mass surveillance carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency prompted the implementation of encryption as a standard of electronic communications. Terrorists can exchange encrypted messages that cannot be intercepted, but governments would like to be able to demand access to the encryption keys.

Extremist Content

As previously mentioned, tech firms are proactively involved in detecting publicly available materials published and distributed by terrorists as propaganda. Intelligence collected in the Manchester and London attacks of 2017 indicates that the attackers were radicalized by content they easily found online. The challenge in this case is that certain technologies such as the Invisible Internet Project (I2P) could make content policing very difficult.

Requests to Turn Over Material

As evidenced by the standoff between Apple and the FBI after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino a few years ago, government requests should include some assurances that intelligence agencies are extremely reluctant to extend. In countries where checks and balances are provided at the constitutional level, requests to turn over information or materials can be frozen through a series of legal challenges.

It is important to note that the meeting between the British Prime Minister and the French President has a significant geopolitical background: the Brexit referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. As the situation stands, Brexit seems like a far off and unwanted prospect that merits closer collaboration between the UK and the EU, at least for the next 12 months and maybe even longer.