Theresa May's Plan To Regulate The Internet Won't Stop Terrorism; It Might Make Things Worse

from the counterproductive-not-counterterrorism dept

In the wake of Saturday’s horrific attack on London—the third high-profile terrorist incident in the United Kingdom in the past three months—British policymakers were left scrambling for better ways to combat violent extremism. Prime Minister Theresa May called for new global efforts to “regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning,” charging that the internet cannot be allowed to be a “safe space” for terrorists.

While May’s desire for a strong response is easy to understand, her call for more expansive internet regulation and censorship is wrongheaded and will make it harder to win the war against violent extremism.

May didn’t specify the details of her proposal, but to many observers it was clear that she’s asking for sweeping new powers to compel tech companies to help spy on citizens and censor online content. Unfortunately, this isn’t simply a knee-jerk response to horrible circumstances, but reflects a longstanding ambition of May’s Conservative Party to impose draconian controls on cyberspace.

As home secretary, May introduced and oversaw passage of the Investigatory Powers Act, legislation that civil-liberties advocates have called the worst surveillance bill of any western democracy. Following last month’s attack in Manchester, May’s government purportedly briefed newspapers of its intent to invoke the law to compel internet companies to “break their own security so that messages can be read by intelligence agencies.” David Cameron, May’s predecessor, argued for internet companies to be compelled to create backdoors in their software so that there would be no digital communications “we cannot read.”

Even if the U.K. government got the expansive new powers it seems to want, there’s no reason to think it would stop terrorism in its tracks. Researchers have found that suicide attacks are a social phenomenon involving support networks that radicalize the perpetrators. Most people in these networks aren’t themselves terrorists. Allowing them to operate openly makes it easier both for moderating voices to intervene and for intelligence agencies to track. If the communities are forced underground and offline, they’ll be harder to infiltrate and monitor.

Moreover, there’s no way to create communications backdoors that only apply to bad guys. While committed terrorists could easily adapt to open source or analog means of communication in response to a government-mandated backdoor, law-abiding civilians would be exposed to new cybersecurity risks and have their economic and civil liberties compromised. Experience has shown that backdoors inevitably will be hacked, making everyone less safe. As the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee noted in its report on the topic, all of the proposed solutions to access encrypted information “come with significant trade-offs, and provide little guarantee of successfully addressing the issue.”

The policy also would have serious consequences for the United Kingdom’s global competitiveness. As the MIT report “Keys Under Doormats” notes, mandating architectures that allow access to encrypted communications “risks the real economic, geopolitical, and strategic benefits of an open and secure internet for law enforcement gains that are at best minor and tactical.” One of the factors behind the West’s dominance in technology and innovation is that its apps are not government-sanctioned, as they are in China or Russia. After all, what consumer would want to buy an app or device that had a built-in backdoor?

All this isn’t to say that governments should stand back and do nothing to stop terrorist activity online. It’s illegal almost everywhere in the world to provide material support to terrorist activities, not to mention the obvious crimes of murder and conspiracy. But terrorists don’t have free reign in cyberspace. In addition to the United Kingdom’s comparatively robust domestic snooping powers, the nation’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) already coordinates flagging and removing unlawful terrorist-related content. Since its launch in 2010, it has worked with online service providers to remove a quarter million pieces of terrorist material.

There also are already international agreements to help authorities uncover and track people engaged in these activities and to exchange intelligence about them across borders. For instance, Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) allow the cross-border flow of data about criminal matters between investigative bodies. While the current MLAT agreements can be slow and cumbersome, efforts are underway to create a new process and allow U.K. authorities to go directly to U.S.-based online service providers, upon meeting certain conditions.

The United Kingdom also is already a key part of the national security data-sharing arrangements between the “Five Eyes,” under which intelligence from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, the United States is shared almost in real time. While the details are classified, there is evidence that this intelligence sharing has prevented numerous attacks.

To her credit, May emphasized the importance of improving these sorts of international agreements in her speech about fighting terrorism. This is an area where we can and should make positive steps toward reform, increasing the capacity for intelligence sharing in real time and improving cooperation, while ensuring that the right checks and balances are in place.

Combating violent extremism online doesn’t have to be a Pyrrhic victory for democratic societies. Certain risks are unavoidable, and no level of internet regulation will stop the most determined attackers. But there are real steps policymakers can take now to enhance our tools without sacrificing our security, liberty or global competitiveness in the process.

Zach Graves is tech policy director and Arthur Rizer is national security and justice policy director for the R Street Institut

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Comments on “Theresa May's Plan To Regulate The Internet Won't Stop Terrorism; It Might Make Things Worse”

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Machin Shin says:

Re: Re:

The sad thing is they don’t seem to realize the dangers involved with this backfiring. Currently they are facing terrorists that can’t even reliably blow themselves up. Keep kicking the geeks and they will be fighting a group that has no problem building highly complex systems that actually work.

Of course I am probably now on a number of fun watch-lists 🙂

Machin Shin says:

Re: Re: Re:

And quickly before I vanish with some bag over my head. I don’t agree with violence, largely because I have realized it almost never gets the results you want. So no, I am not going to do anything stupid.

I am just pointing out that they are picking a fight with much different group from the current terrorists.

Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously says:

When the west provides a viable future for potentially radicalizable persons, terrorism will evaporate.
This means stopping with bombing their ancestral birthplaces, stopping with (bias-)discriminating against anyone different and accepting them as members of our society.
This also means going against the interests of the 1%ers who `fund’ the election campaign (even though `enlarging the pie’ means even more money for them but they can’t allow anyone else having even a little bit).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Because as usual, those on the left need to transfer all responsibility for evil to those they hate instead of those actually responsible for that evil.

Run over someone with a tractor? Its caterpillars fault.
Get shot with a gun, then its the gun mfg fault.
Lunatic shoots up a group of people or a school, that is gun laws fault.

They don’t understand liberty, rights, or true equality, just a bunch of platitudes about the outcome of those things and will happily make deals with the devil to accomplish them, never having realized that they are the architects of their own demise!

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

We’re not left wing, you’re far right.

Look, you’ve seen the Second Amendment enthusiasts calling for revolt over surveillance and police abuse, etc., right? Terrorism is that ramped up to ten: it’s their idea of revolt. Now personally I believe that the minute you resort to violence you’ve lost the argument because you don’t have the support of the people; the minute you get power, what will you do with it? We’ve all seen what the answer is in ISIS-controlled areas: cartoonishly evil tyranny. But why do people join them in the first place? Start by answering that question, then you’ll see what the solutions might be.

Even GCHQ admits that UK foreign policy has done more to exacerbate the terrorism problem than resolve it. Are they left wing? No. Establishment? Oh, yes.

So now what? Altering our foreign policy to give the terrorists less of an excuse to justify their actions coupled with careful, targeted survellance and swift justice is the answer. Make examples, not martyrs of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are in your full right to comment anonymously. Nothing wrong with that, not in law not in this forum’s rules.

“When the west provides a viable future for potentially radicalizable persons, terrorism will evaporate.”

I think this is the best and most truthful comment I have seen so far here.

But lets just go further, West don’t need to provide nothing to potential radicals. It simply needs to stop invading other countries for their resources, financing extremist groups to help them make a change of regime in places where they don’t play along their rigged commerce rules, stop generating a world wide anti-western sentiment.

That is it. Just stop interfering in other countries’ businesses.

discordian_eris (profile) says:

It will be interesting when Chrome, Firefox, Safari and IE make a UK only version of their browsers. It will be 1996 all over again.

“We’re sorry, but due to your location, the UK, you may only download and install a browser with 40-bit encryption. We are saddened to inform you that you will not be able to connect to any website that uses TSL outside of the UK. (So no https folks.)”

If they actually start implementing anything like this they will essentially be kicking themselves off the Internet at large. Well, except for government offices of course, they will be exempt.

The citizens of the UK might put up with this bullshit for a few days, but no longer than that. Once they realize that they will be completely unable to use Facebook, or indeed any social networking site, the fur will fly.

Needless to say, like most politicians, they are completely tech and science illiterate. Now if only we could force all candidates for office to pass basic tests on the 3 R’s and STEM subjects. After all, if they are too dumb/ignorant to pass 9th grade competency tests, they can always become cops.

Anonymous Howard II says:

Re: Re:

Once they realize that they will be completely unable to use Facebook, or indeed any social networking site, the fur will fly.

Which is really sad. Many people here in the UK simply don’t get (or don’t care) what the ever-expanding surveillance and censorship regime is doing, for as long as it doesn’t have a discernable impact on how they use the internet and go about their lives in general. Many people are satisfied with the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" trope.

My own attempts to inform people have fallen on deaf ears or blind eyes. They simply aren’t interested.

Only when the shit hits the fan do people grumble.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Nah, Facebook, Google. and the rest should just detect the UK IP and display a page that says “Move to a better nation that respects the privacy of it’s law abiding citizenry if you want to use our site.” with no way to access anything else.

That alone would get rid of this crap. Make it known: You wanna break the internet, it’s not going to work for you.

Anonymous Coward says:

May and the Cons and their partner cons in other jurisdictions are corrupt, vicious, stupid grubs.

I don’t accept that they have any interest in domestic security.

The solution is to stop funding both sides of the perpetual war that is bringing this threat to our doorsteps.

It has nothing to do with Twitter and YouTube. They just want to control them for disinformation and surveillance purposes.

Anonymous Coward says:

May misses the 600 pound gorilla in front of her

The terrorists were all known to the police and MI5. Any more control, regulation or mass surveillance of the the internet won’t help. Better analyze what’s going wrong inside the police and MI5 and fix those issues. And firing 10000 police officers could have been a bad idea anyway (that’s what Mrs. May did a while ago).

Al says:

Re: May misses the 600 pound gorilla in front of her

The real gorilla is who funds and arms the terrorists, and allows them to operate? Seymour Hersh has already detailed in “The Redirection” how we created an enemy to further the elites control over us all, in order to take our rights in the effort to save us from the Bad Guys. In typical Lenin fashion the best way to control the opposition is to lead it.

My_Name_Here says:

The fact is, you can’t blame May for doing what she’s doing. But as usual, Masnick seems intent on having his attack dogs do all they can to demonize authority and make them look stupid. It seems that the Internet has given anarchists and pirates common gathering places to spread their disgusting, lawbreaking ideas, which is why Masnick has such a vested interest.

As wrong as May’s approach is, if Masnick is against it, I’m all for it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

We can exactly blame May for her stupid police cutbacks, her stupid approach to things as Home Secretary, and her stupid approach to being PM. She’s not a “holy, sacred D. Trump”, after all…

One of the prime things this site does is highlight abuse of power by those who are in charge or who have all the money/politicians/guns. Which is exactly what media, the internet and ordinary citizens should be doing. The UK site The Register is equally rude about Mayhem and her madnesses so feel free to go whine at them as well while you suck your Trump Ice Lolly.

And if breaking laws disgust you, I’ll happily find some to break! But I suspect most of them will be the usual “fake” laws made up by monopolists to try and protect their supposed creativity, as opposed to real ones which protect society from actual harm.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

TD does not really demonize Authority, they unwittingly service it.

You are every bit as ignorance as many others here on this subject. This game is an ancient one played by all past civilizations and current.

How does a nation obtain complete subservience and compliance from its citizens? The final answer has always been “through fear”. Be it “direct” fear of state visa vi Nazi “spy on your neighbor and report them to us” & now “see something say something” DHS American Nazi-ism. Or through subterfuge and intellectual dissonance like May is trying now with the “in order to combat a foreign enemy we must take your liberty from you under the guise of regulation” and the American Patriot Act and many other implementations of liberty destroying legal systems you all STILL keep crying for then whine about when implemented.

You won’t learn and They will not learn. Not even blood in the streets will teach you as evidenced by May’s reaction and America’s reaction on 9/11. Murder us and we Fear and Coward every place we go! We flee like people easy to threaten!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“demonize authority”

They “demonize” themselves and their “authority” is derived from the public, not their dreams.

“make them look stupid”

They already looked stupid, now they look even more stupid.

Anarchists .. another term tossed out there when one needs to say something derogatory but lack the skill or motivation to come up with an actual point to make. It is interesting to note these terms used and equate them to a personality type.

“disgusting, lawbreaking ideas”

When a law is disgusting, is it illegal to break said law or is there a moral obligation to do so? The answer to this question points toward whether a person is reasonable or a tyrant.

Your Masnick love is cute, but getting old.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think you’ll find that we can blame Prim Minister May for what she’s doing. A definition may be useful: “Blame: Assign responsibility for a fault or wrong.” Unless you’re arguing that she’s not responsible for her actions, she’s certainly to blame for them.

You also seem to be laboring under a misapprehension regarding the character of the site and its participants. Most of the editorials and comments here strongly support changing laws which themselves are disgusting and abhorrent, rather than breaking them.

Perhaps you should reflect on on why you feel honest reporting on the actions of those in positions of authority demonizes them or makes them look stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Regulating the Internet will stop terrorism!

Why not? Many here at TD think that regulating ISP’s will stop them from screwing the people or building monopolies. So far all I have seen regulation do is slowly build government blessed monopolies instead.

But hey, who am I to tell a bunch of people that they are running to their worst enemy to save them from a lesser enemy?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Regulating the Internet will stop terrorism!

That is your problem, we ARE on the same side.

You just don’t understand what the fuck is going on! You NEED some dedication. As long as you continue to view government as a “trustable” entity then you are never going to win!

So remember, we have always been on the same side, just with different opinions about resolving the problem at hand.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Regulating the Internet will stop terrorism!

That is the problem… the idea that anything is less trustworthy than government.

I can fight a monopoly much easier than I can the government. When government gets in the mix, a customer now contends with people with guns that like to hold themselves above the law and tell you that your suit has no merit and dismiss your case without a care while laughing at your attempts to obtain justice or relief.

Regulation puts businesses into bed with government and those two need to be kept from each other as much as reasonably possible. In fact government agencies should only be funded based on the amount to damage they can cause to a business, for the obvious reasons.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Regulating the Internet will stop terrorism!

“I can fight a monopoly much easier than I can the government. When government gets in the mix, a customer now contends with people with guns that like to hold themselves above the law and tell you that your suit has no merit and dismiss your case without a care while laughing at your attempts to obtain justice or relief.”

Nicely said.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Regulating the Internet will stop terrorism!

I can fight a monopoly much easier than I can the government.

For one thing, how?

The normal non-government way to influence a company is by "voting with your wallet": taking your business elsewhere. With a monopoly, that’s not an option.

The only other way I can see to influence a company, aside from things like threatening or using physical violence against its decision-makers (which is problematic for other reasons, not least that if it’s legal then so are similar threats or use of violence against you), is through the medium of government.

By contrast, you can change (the direction and/or policies of) government much more easily than you can a monopoly: by voting, by protesting, by swaying other people to do similarly. None of those tactics work on a monopoly, except through the medium of government; if you rule out government from the picture, that seems to leave you with no way to influence the monopoly at all, as far as I can see.

What alternative ways of fighting the monopoly do you have in mind, which the monopoly would not be able to easily shut down by use of its market power?

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

^This. I pointed this out to Mrs. May via my then MP Hazel Blears when she was Home Secretary. I also pointed out that the then security minister, James Brokenshire, appeared to be taking dictation from an IRA supporter, one Congressman Peter King (h/t Techdirt for pointing this out to me), since he was repeating GOP talking points.

Brokenshire was shuffled to another job but May’s response was, “Google is spying on you!”

Okay, fine, but the worst thing Google does is sell my browsing habits. May’s lot are taking other people’s money and handing it over to G4S to hoover up the browsing habits of the British public. Targeted surveillance and more personnel to follow up on reports that nutters are trying to recruit kids to terrorist groups would be the better way to go. The sooner that bunch of asset-stripping carpetbagger Tories are shown the door, the better.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s also a major difference in consequences between government and corporate spying when the data raises vague suspicions.

Consider Canadian telecommunications engineer Maher Arar. Kidnapped by the US government, sent to a third country, tortured, and finally cleared and released with an “er, never mind.”

Or American lawyer and veteran Brandon Mayfield. After the 2004 Madrid train bombings a partial fingerprint found on a bag somewhat matched his own from veteran’s records. Despite Spanish officials telling the FBI that it wasn’t a match, the FBI didn’t just arrest him; they “disappeared” him. (Lied to the judge about the case against him, and later lied about where he was being held.) He was arrested as a “material witness”, so he could be held as long as they wanted without charging him. And of course they raided his home and carted off his and his family’s belongings.

Google can’t do that.

Then there’s the data mining now used by law enforcement for “civil forfeiture.” A small business’s nightly deposits are less than $10,000? (Deposits greater than that amount must be reported to the federal government) Seize the account. No other evidence needed, and a system set up so that there’s little chance of getting it back.

“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”
– Cardinal Richelieu (disputed quote)

The thought of the government – still arguably a torture state – having not merely their 6 lines, but a complete dossier on everyone with EVERYTHING they written and a list everyone they’ve come into contact with – even unknowingly – is a tad scary.

discordian_eris (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No, what the West, and in particular the US, needs to do is stop fucking with countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Remember that the founder of Daesh did so in response to his torture at US/Iraqi hands. Just as al-Qaeda is the result of blowback from CIA actions in Afghanistan. Sad it say it, but much of the current troubles are the direct result of American actions and malfeasance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, I don’t remember the founder of Daesh as well as you do, and I don’t know the al-Qaeda is the result of the CIA. You know, you sound exactly like the radical Muslims on that show “The Jihadist Next Door”. I mean, they were selling the same patter to justify their actions, culminating in random murders on London streets.

Have you been radicalized? Are you going to act on your beliefs that the US should “stop fucking with countries in the Middle East and North Africa”?

Clearly, you are a nut job, and sound exactly like a Muslim Jihadist. My question is, are you a dangerous one? Do you consider yourself dangerous? Do you fantasize about killing people, or do you just intend to inspire others to do so?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You do understand that there are people on the streets of London everyday promoting exactly the same talking points, right? And their agenda is to recruit people into their belief system of condemnation of the West and justify their personal sacrifice (suicide) to contribute to the “greater good”, right? First they condemn, then they justify, then they promise, and then they send their weaponised idealists to kill others.

Have you seen “The Jihadist Next Door”? Watch it, really, and listen to the self-avowed Jihadists that practice VERY SIMILAR rhetoric to recruit people into their murderous endeavors. First they talk about how responsible the West is for problems in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and they explain the only solution is to ATTACK and KILL THEM. Really, I’m not kidding, it is really happening every day on the streets of London, and maybe also everyday here on Techdirt. You can see the actual man who murdered people with a knife explain EXACTLY the same logic before he executed his Jihad.

When someone so openly condemns the government and (seemingly) justifies terrorism, I think it ABSOLUTELY APPROPRIATE to confront them and try to understand more about their beliefs. Not just appropriate, but maybe life saving.

I believe it is not a matter of “derp” (whatever that is) but an issue of genuine concern, and very related to both current events and the current topic.

tom (profile) says:

Years ago, using the public “Fight Against Child Porn” as the excuse, Politicians pressured ISPs and others to drop support of Usenet news groups. The behind the scenes reasons included pressure from media groups to stop the free xfer of files.

The result was child porn traffickers moved to encrypted servers and as a result, are much harder to discover, gather evidence on and convict. So much so that the Federal government is dismissing cases rather the reveal in court how they gathered the evidence.

So the knee jerk “Do Something” about child porn results in the crippling of the fight against child porn.

Likely the same thing will happen here if these “Do Something” to fight terrorism suggestions become law.

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