Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron plan to fine technology companies if they don't remove 'objectionable' content from their platforms

  • May said plans will stop internet from being a 'safe space for terrorists"
  • Tories refuse to rule out Chinese-style internet censorship
  • Conservative manifesto said it wanted UK to be 'global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet'

Social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook could be fined if they fail to remove material identified as being objectionable under proposals announced by Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Mrs May, who was speaking in Paris alongside French president Emmanuel Macron, said the plans were aimed to stop the internet being a "safe space for terrorists".  It is unclear who exactly will decide what content should be removed.

The Prime Minister flew to the French capital, accompanied by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, after breaking off from negotiations with the DUP to shore up her minority government following last week's disastrous election results.

Her host is riding high from spectacular successes in the first round of parliamentary elections last weekend, with the second round expected to deliver an overwhelming majority for his En Marche party at the end of this week.

Mrs May was granted a guard of honour as she arrived at the Elysee Palace to be greeted at the door with a kiss on both cheeks by Mr Macron ahead of a working dinner.

The pair were later due to watch the France v England football friendly international at the Stade de France, where crowds are expected to sing God Save The Queen and observe a minute's silence in honour of the victims of recent terror attacks in the UK.

The gesture of solidarity comes after English football fans sang the French national anthem at Wembley following terror attacks in Paris in 2015.

Under plans being developed by Mrs May and Mr Macron, internet companies such as Facebook, YouTube and Google could be fined if they fail to remove 'extremist propaganda and terrorist material' from their platforms.

'Legal liability'

The UK and France are to develop plans to create a new legal liability for tech companies which fail to take action against unacceptable content.

And the two countries will lead joint work with internet giants to explore the potential for new tools to identify and remove harmful material automatically.

Mrs May said: "The counter-terrorism co-operation between British and French intelligence agencies is already strong, but President Macron and I agree that more should be done to tackle the terrorist threat online.

"In the UK we are already working with social media companies to halt the spread of extremist material and poisonous propaganda that is warping young minds.

"And today I can announce that the UK and France will work together to encourage corporations to do more and abide by their social responsibility to step up their efforts to remove harmful content from their networks, including exploring the possibility of creating a new legal liability for tech companies if they fail to remove unacceptable content.

"We are united in our total condemnation of terrorism and our commitment to stamp out this evil."

Mrs May and Mr Macron will press tech companies to move forward urgently with the establishment of an industry-led forum to develop shared technical and policy solutions to the problem, as agreed by leaders of the world's most advanced economies at last month's G7 summit in Italy.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd and French interior minister Gerard Collomb will meet in the coming days to drive the agenda forward.

'Distraction'

Activists have warned that Mrs May could push through extreme internet regulation while people are distracted by the current political situation.

The Prime Minister might use her May to launch wide-ranging internet controls aimed at 'regulating cyberspace' and giving security services more powers – which includes weakening security and increasing censorship – as a way of restoring some of "image as a tough leader", the Open Rights Group has warned.

The prime minister might look to automatically censor the internet, for instance, and weaken security in a way that "could put all of us at a great risk of crime", it said.

Despite failing to win a majority at the recent election, Ms May has suggested that she will keep going with her extreme plans. And she might do so specifically because the government's majority is "fragile", he said.

Such decisions would help make Ms May look strong and serve as a distraction from the current political situation, including the lack of a majority in parliament and the Brexit negotiations. But they might serve only to put people in danger, he said.

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“To push on with these extreme proposals for Internet clampdowns would appear to be a distraction from the current political situation and from effective measures against terror," said Jim Killock, Open Rights Group's executive director.

Such changes are not necessary because the government already has sweeping surveillance powers, Mr Killock warned. Instituting them may only have the effect of making life easier for terrorists, he said.

"Both of these proposals could result in terrorists and extremists switching to platforms and services that are more difficult for our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor," he said.

And the concentration on other issues may go through while parliamentarians and the public are distracted.

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"Given that the priority for all MPs is how the UK will negotiate Brexit, it will be especially hard to give the time and thought necessary to scrutinise these proposals," he said.

"It could be tempting to push ahead in order to restore some of Theresa May’s image as a tough leader. This should be resisted. With such a fragile majority, greater consensus will be needed to pass new laws.

"We hope that this will mean our parliamentarians will reject reactionary policy-making and look for long-term, effective solutions that directly address the complex causes of terrorism."

'Chinese-style internet censorship not ruled out'

Mrs May promised in the final days of the campaign to launch a worldwide plan to get "international agreements" to "regulate cyberspace". The Conservative party manifesto laid out wide-ranging plans to regulate the internet, which included a commitment to become the "global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet".

During the election campaign, the prime minister refused to rule out Chinese-style internet censorship as part of that regulation plan, suggesting that she might look to shut down or ban companies that didn't comply with her controversial proposals.

Almost all of Ms May's plans for stopping terror have focused on internet communications, despite there being no proof that they are responsible for recent attacks. She said after the London Bridge attack that she planned four ways to stop terror, which included internet regulation alongside countering propaganda and segregation.

The Ministry of Defence’s former cyber security chief has already accused the Government of trying to “use” the devastating Westminster attack to grab unnecessary and intrusive surveillance powers.

The government has already introduced the Investigatory Powers Act. That law was passed at the end of last year and gives spies – and a range of other organisations including the Food Standards Agency and PSNI – the power to see anyone’s entire internet history, alongside other unprecedented rules.

Major General Jonathan Shaw said ministers were attempting to “use the moment” to push for security services having more control, despite there being only a weak case for it.

Experts have warned that the plans for internet regulation could in fact make life easier for terrorists.

“If successful, Theresa May could push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe," wrote Jim Killock, Open Rights Groups' executive director.

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"But we should not be distracted: the internet and companies like Facebook are not a cause of this hatred and violence, but tools that can be abused.

"While governments and companies should take sensible measures to stop abuse, attempts to control the internet is not the simple solution that Theresa May is claiming."

Open Rights noted that “real solutions” would “require attempts to address the actual causes of extremism”. “Debating controls on the internet risks distracting from these very hard and vital questions,” Mr Killock wrote.

In 2015 Donald Trump called for called for the internet to be turned off, and said he would ask Bill Gates to ‘close it up’.

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