Theresa May must realise that the internet is not to blame for terrorism


In the most traumatic week since she became Prime Minister, Theresa May has responded well. Her calm demeanour suited the difficult circumstances that present themselves an act of terror, and she rose to the occasion.

In Parliament she abandoned the overly personal and partisan approach she normally adopts, and reflected the mood of the house accurately, the spirit of solidarity pervading the Commons Chamber. Her words have been chosen carefully, and she has been careful, for example, to make explicit the distinction between “Islamist” and “Islamic”. Her experience as Home Secretary will also have informed her decisions. Above all, she has stressed that politics and the democratic process should not be disrupted unduly.

In which case, it is in order to offer a word of criticism, constructively meant. In one respect, the Prime Minster seems to have come to a strange conclusion about the role of the internet in the low-tech but deadly attack. Like others, she has said that the huge companies that dominate the internet must do more" to stop extremist material being posted online.

Perhaps they can – “more” can always be done by anyone about anything – but it is misleading to suppose that any algorithm or team of human interdictors can keep up with the wave upon wave of material published on the web, via emails and on social media that is offensive, dangerous or, indeed, “fake”. Some point to the easy access possible via a Google search to "instructions” about how to use a car to kill. Without trivialising the matter, no one needs to know the principles behind running people over, nor using a knife. It is less a matter of practicalities tuition and more a matter of frenzy and indoctrination.

The internet is, no doubt, an open university for jihadis and preachers of hate, but for the time being it is impossible to close down all the outlets. In an era of encryption and the “dark web”, terror, child abuse, money laundering and many other crimes are in fact easier than ever to perpetrate using digital means. It is not the fault of internet service providers or software developers that this stage of affairs has arisen. Every piece of new technology, from the domestication of the horse to the telephone to the contactless payment card, has offered some criminal somewhere an avenue for profit.

This is not a counsel of despair. The more egregious examples of hate can be shut down, and digital companies can help the authorities strike the right balance between customers’ privacy, corporate profitability and the wider public good. But firms such as WhatsApp or Google cannot prevent terror, which has existed long before Tim Berners-Lee had the bright idea of linking the world’s computers. By the same token, some of the perverted teaching of Islam takes place via the traditional routes of mosque and madrassa, pamphlet and letter. The internet is not to blame for terrorism.