Failing to remove extremist propaganda and terrorist material from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter could see the Silicon Valley giants facing hefty fines under proposals agreed upon by British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Speaking ahead of a visit to Paris on Tuesday and following the UK suffering its third terrorist attack in four months, May said she and Macron are determined to ensure the internet cannot be used as a safe space for terrorists and criminals.
It is expected that the United Kingdom and France will develop plans to create a new legal liability for tech companies that fail to take action against unacceptable content on their platforms.
The two countries will lead joint work with internet giants to explore the potential for new tools to identify and remove harmful material automatically.
May called for the introduction of rules to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” earlier this month, and also hit out at technology firms for not doing enough.
“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet, that is precisely what the internet and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide,” she said.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently called on social media companies to help bust the encryption used in user communications, labelling the likes of Facebook and Twitter as too tolerant of extremist material.
At the time, Turnbull said Australia, alongside its Five Eyes counterparts — the US, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand — is working with social media companies to get extremist material taken down.
According to Australian Attorney-General George Brandis, the best way to approach this is to solicit the cooperation of companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google, telling Sky News over the weekend that there is a “greater conscious proactive willingness” on their behalf to cooperate, but that legal sanctions are still necessary.
“[There’s] a growing awareness by the companies of the reputational harm they suffer, or they would suffer, if they are seen to be not doing everything that they can to assist with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to thwart the use of their systems by terrorists,” he said, pointing to the 2016 legal battle between the FBI and Apple over the latter’s refusal to unlock the phone of the San Bernardino terrorist.
“I think where the community is at the moment is to prioritise their concern about giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies the tools they need to thwart terrorism, and everyone knows that the internet and cyberspace are important vectors for terrorists.”
Brandis’ comments followed the announcement by the Australian government that it would be looking into laws that would force companies into helping authorities decrypt communications of those under investigation for extremist or terrorist behaviour.
Brandis also told Sky News that he would be meeting with UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd — who he said he’s been working closely with — in Ottawa before the end of June, as part of the Five Eyes meeting.
Speaking on ABC radio on Wednesday, Australia’s Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cybersecurity Alastair MacGibbon dismissed the issue of intelligence agencies using encryption backdoors to access communication content, and instead said investigations might be interested in a user’s metadata and working with industry to solve crimes.
“No one is talking about back doors here,” he said. “But as a police officer, you’d execute search warrants. From time to time, we do expect our privacy to be breached, but most of us don’t ever have that privacy breached.
“And we need to take that same logic into the online space. That means, from time to time, you’d expect a law enforcement agency to break in to a private communication or to something that happens online.”