Tech firms could do more to tackle extremism – but so could politicians

Alan Travis Home affairs editor
The Policy Exchange report identifies the Telegram messaging app as a major platform for Isis propaganda. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The stark warning that more online jihadist propaganda is accessed from Britain than anywhere else in Europe provides more evidence on the eve of a New York summit between Theresa May and the tech giants that governments are not winning the battle against online extremism.

With evidence of more than 100 “how to make a bomb” manuals and recruitment videos posted online in an average week, the report from the Policy Exchange thinktank calling for tough new penalties, including swingeing fines, on the web giants makes for sober reading.

In the immediate aftermath of the Parsons Green bombing it is right to highlight just how easy it is to find the instructions to build such a bucket bomb online. Not to mention Amazon’s perverse algorithms that automatically suggest to would-be bombers other key ingredients for an improvised explosive device as items “frequently bought together”.

But does that really justify the weekend headlines claiming that “the web giants have blood on their hands” for failing to act faster in removing terrorist or extremist content from their sites?

After the London Bridge attack earlier this year, Britain’s official reviewer of terrorism laws, Max Hill QC, said it was “entirely right that the spotlight should fall” on the tech companies but there was a question in his mind as to whether new legislation with sweeping fines and other penalties was really the way forward.

“In Germany there was a proposal to levy heavy fines on tech companies whenever they failed to take down extremist content. I am not sure that is absolutely necessary,” Hill said. “I have sat with the relevant police unit that identifies the extremist material. I have seen them communicate with the tech companies and the co-operation that flows from that. It is a question of the bulk of the material rather than a lack of cooperation in dealing with it,” he said.

Earlier this year, Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons home affairs committee, rightly embarrassed US giants such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google over their failure to remove material showcasing hate preachers, white supremacists, and bombmaking guides even after being warned.

She also succeeded in exposing the extremely limited resources the companies put into even monitoring the content that is uploaded on to their platforms. The web companies say they cannot match the scale of the problem until they develop the artificial intelligence programmes but they are working on it. In the meantime they could do more.

But this is only one small piece of jigsaw. The Policy Exchange report identifies the Telegram messaging app as a major platform for Isis propaganda. It is a platform that originates in Russia and is currently headquartered in Berlin. May’s talks on Wednesday with US tech giants in New York are unlikely to have any impact on that particular problem.

The wider underlying problem is that after every major terror attack in Britain – and there has been a “shift change” in their momentum this year – the political response has focused almost solely on the failure of the web companies to tackle online extremism.

It is now more than two years since May promised a “full spectrum” response to the terror attacks and a complete overhaul of Britain’s counter-extremism strategy. Yet so far very little has emerged.

The tarnished reputation of the Prevent programme, which is designed to tackle radicalisation, is in urgent need of reform. It has already been suggested that the teenage suspect in the Parsons Green bombing had been referred to the programme months before the attack. This is just one aspect of how the political paralysis in the development of counter-terrorism policy is leaving Britain vulnerable to attack.

The police and security services have responded to the accelerated pace of the terror attacks. It is time the politicians did as well instead of just blaming the web companies for their lack of action.

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