It is not surprising that another terrorist incident, this time on London’s Westminster Bridge, has resulted in a hue-and-cry from the government against social media and encryption. This time, the town-crier is UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd. She has lambasted end-to-end encryption in apps as “completely unacceptable.” She added that there should be “no hiding place for terrorists.”
Could she be making an about-face now, and taking back these remarks? It would appear so. The Guardian suggests that her recent pow-wows with tech firms are merely a PR ploy, as the substantive differences between the government and the tech industry are likely to loom large for some time.
Absent the thorny issues which divide them, such as taxes and users’ privacy (read: encryption backdoors), the most recent confab is somewhat cordial – especially when it revolves around an issue on which they both can agree. All sides seem to be on the same page when it comes to extremism and extremist material on social media.
Well… maybe not all is simpatico, as Rudd and the government would like the tech giants to do more than take down objectionable content. They want the like of Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al, to recognize potentially dangerous posters before they post their material, so as to preclude it from ever seeing the light of day.
Technology firms, however, point out the impossibility of the latter proposal, and bristle at the notion of so-called pre-screening. It puts them in the roles of arbiters, veritable judges, juries, and executioners – or censors – of what may be, at times, legal content. However, for now, and in this very narrow context of extremist material, there appears to some agreement.
To be sure, larger, more contentious issues remain. These include how much tax a tech company must pay to each jurisdiction, as well as the never-ending battle over social media companies trampling on personal privacy in their mad scramble for revenue. It is worthwhile noting that, on these broader issues, the government holds most of the high cards – mostly in the form of legislation already on the books.
So the tech companies are happy to at last be more in agreement, and on firmer footing with the government. From the government’s perspective, they are happy to be, at last, pro-tech, as tech is often equated with success and innovation. In this economically uncertain era of Brexit, being a pro-business government is a good thing.
There’s more to it for the government, then, than just posturing, photo-ops and sound bites in “playing nice” with the techies. Scratching their backs and cozying up to the industry has its physical (and fiscal?) rewards. For example, in 2016 it was discovered that, over the past ten years, at least 80 people have switched back and forth between government employment and Google’s employ.
Apparently, Google understands, too, how the game is played. For the government, the game is all about votes and staying in power, so pandering to public opinion, which is definitely anti-terrorist and anti-extremist, will always pay dividends at the ballot box.
Besides, by confronting the easier issue of extremism where there is agreement, the government doesn’t risk the prospect of losing on an issue of encryption that experts say it can’t win. The government already has the power to force technology firms to act as it wants over end-to-end encryption, but is avoiding using existing legislation for just that reason, they opine.
One such observer, Alec Muffett, who is a technical advisor and board member of the Open Rights Group, said:
“Eventually they will lose the battle because they will never (for instance) coerce the global open-source community to comply. Government time and money would be better spent elsewhere – pursuing criminals through ‘human’ means and by building upon metadata – than in attempting to combat ‘secure communication across the internet’ as an abstract entity.”
Convening meetings and, all at once, commiserating with and chiding such a likely target as the tech behemoths, while simultaneously maintaining a cordial relationship with them, serves everyone’s purpose. It is a win-win for all. It also gives the appearance of action, and unlike the actual heavy lifting of legislation, it is quite easy to do.
But it is really just lip-service. Hence, the pricklier issues can be kicked down the road like the proverbial can, and the status quo can be preserved. The problem is that the barbarians are at the gate, and maintaining the status quo is not good enough.