20 September 2017

We must force the tech firms to get tough on terror

By Martyn Frampton

Last week’s terrorist attack at Parsons Green is just the latest reminder that our society and our very way of life are under constant threat. In each jihadist attack on Britain this year, it seems that online radicalisation played some part in driving the perpetrators to violence – whether by providing the instructions for last week’s bomb, or spreading the hateful ideology behind these attacks.

At present, we are certainly not winning the war online. Indeed, as a society, we are struggling to grasp the extent of the challenge – and to devise appropriate ways of responding.

As General David Petraeus says in his foreword to Policy Exchange’s new report ‘The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online’, “Jihadists have shown particular facility in exploiting ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world. And now they are also exploiting the vast, largely ungoverned spaces in cyberspace, demonstrating increasing technical expertise, sophistication in media production, and agility in the face of various efforts to limit its access.”

Although ISIS are losing physical territory, they have maintained a consistent virtual output and presence over the last three years. In an average week, Islamist jihadists produce around 100 pieces of new content (and often much more than that). That covers everything from videos to images to essays, disseminated by means of a “swarmcast” – an interconnected network that constantly reconfigures itself, much like a swarm of bees or flock of birds in mid-flight, and is extremely resilient to disruption.

Our research shows that jihadists use different social media platforms in different ways. They communicate with each other via an app called Telegram, which plays host to a rich array of textual and audio-visual extremist content. But for outreach activity aimed at a broader audience, they also exploit the mainstream internet companies we all know – platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Tens of thousands of users access this content from all over the globe – and the UK is the most common location in Europe from which it is accessed, and the fifth most common in the world, after Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Twitter alone accounts for 40 per cent of the identifiable traffic to jihadist content.

Many of these companies are clearly not blind to this problem. They have assured governments, and their users, that they take this threat seriously. But so far, these words have not led to actions that have proven decisive. The ability of jihadists to promote their message online in the mainstream public space is undiminished.

Unsurprisingly, the polling we carried out for our report shows a crisis of confidence amongst the general public on this issue. Three quarters of British people feel that the big internet companies should be more proactive in locating and deleting extremist content. Two thirds think that those companies are not doing enough at the moment to combat online radicalisation. These companies are famed for their innovation and intelligence, but they are not seen as applying those qualities to the battle against extremism.

It is clear that the status quo is not working. So it is time for a new approach. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary have, to their credit, led the way internationally, calling out the tech companies and demanding that more be done.

We have proposed a graduated six-step plan – all aspects of which have significant public support – through which the Government could put pressure on the leading tech firms to improve their performance:

1) Ask the companies to revise and implement more stringent codes of conduct or terms of service that explicitly reject extremism

2) Require the companies to work with and fund the efforts of an expanded Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit

3) Empower the forthcoming Commission for Countering Extremism to oversee the removal of online content

4) Establish a new independent regulator of social media content, within the purview of Ofcom

5) Put in place a system of financial penalties, administered by that independent regulator, to force company compliance

6) Consider ways in which existing legislation on the distribution of extremist material can be used to prosecute repeat offenders among the tech companies

We hope, of course, that it doesn’t come to this. The best solution for everyone is for the internet companies to take the lead on this issue – on which public opinion is clear, by the way, that they bear the primary responsibility.

Yet it may be the case that governments have to help these corporations to help themselves by showing tough love.

As our report recognises, dealing with a problem of this magnitude requires action across society. At the other end of the supply chain, we recommend that the government find new ways to reduce “demand” – by also targeting those who wish to consume extremist material.

At present, the legal framework for dealing with this issue is fragmented. There is no prohibition on the consumption or possession per se of extremist content. One option for dealing with this would be to develop civil remedies – perhaps by extending mechanisms such as the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), or revisiting proposals for “Extremism Disruption Orders”. Alternatively, the government could consider new legislation that would criminalise the “aggravated possession and/or persistent consumption of material that promotes hatred and violence in the service of a political ideology”.

Such powers would need to be framed carefully to avoid any undue infringement of civil liberties. But the scale of the challenge requires innovative thinking and a bold new approach – and our survey suggests there is a public mandate to do more. Two thirds of people believe that the internet should be a regulated space in which extremist material is controlled.

Getting the balance right between liberty and security online is not easy and it requires us to confront difficult questions about the role of the state in relation to the internet, and the moral and social norms that are appropriate in the digital age.

But this issue is vital to UK national security. Unless we act to defeat the virtual threat, there is a danger that the blood and treasure we are investing in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria will produce little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

Dr Martyn Frampton is Co-Head of Security and Extremism at Policy Exchange and the lead author of 'The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online'