Internet and terrorism: can web giants do more to combat global terror?

By Liam Fell

Although terrorism has been in steady decline since the 1980s, the nature of terrorism in the UK has changed markedly in the last ten years.  No longer the work of organised cells whose activities are directed by foreign terrorist groups, the most recent attacks faced by the UK have been so-called lone wolf attacks; the attacker has acted under his own volition.

Prime Minister May has called for more action to be taken by internet companies to help prevent terrorism. This comes after Britain experiences its highest number of deaths due to terrorism since 2005. But is she right to suggest it is internet companies who need to play a larger role in helping to reduce terrorism?

The government faces the same problem today that governments throughout history have faced: thoughts and ideas are hard, if not impossible, to contain.

At first glance, this seems sensible. If companies like Facebook and Google are able to limit the spread of radicalising material, perhaps this will, in turn, reduce the number of people being radicalised. However, there are several issues with this. The first of which is the sheer scale of the task at hand. It is easier to make broad statements that these companies ‘should be doing more’ than to offer a practical solution to the problem. The amount of content posted on sites like Facebook each day is vast and the time needed to thoroughly search for, and remove all of is impractical.

Even with far more comprehensive systems in place, determined content-sharers are likely to find ways around filters. In short, the government faces the same problem today that governments throughout history have faced: thoughts and ideas are hard, if not impossible, to contain. But even if we could completely prevent the spread of these ideas, not to mention the human rights implications behind limiting free speech, we come to a more fundamental issue of whose role it is to decide what material encourages terrorism and what does not. With a relatively small number of technology companies dominating both social media and search, to give them sole discretion in policing the content hosted on their platforms might put us at risk of giving a very small section of society a disproportionately large role in shaping public discourse and the spread of ideas.

We have to accept these ideas will exist, with or without, government or corporate intervention. Perhaps instead the Prime Minister should be asking what makes a British Citizen turn on his country and commit such abhorrent acts of violence.

Internet companies instead should focus on, yes removing content which falls foul of UK law but also creating a platform where a free market of ideas can flourish. We may find putting faith in the ideas and values of western liberal democracies could be the most powerful tool we have with which to fight terrorism.

Image: Blogtrepreneur via Flickr

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