LONDON: The UK government has kicked off the new year with another warning shot across the bows of social media giants. In an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, security minister Ben Wallace hit out at tech platforms like Facebook and Google, dubbing such companies “ruthless profiteers” and saying they are doing too little to help the government combat online extremism and terrorism despite hateful messages spreading via their platforms.
“We should stop pretending that because they sit on beanbags in T-shirts they are not ruthless profiteers. They will ruthlessly sell our details to loans and soft-porn companies but not give it to our democratically elected government,” he said.
Wallace suggested the government is considering a tax on tech firms to cover the rising costs of policing related to online radicalization.
“If they continue to be less than co-operative, we should look at things like tax as a way of incentivizing them or compensating for their inaction,” he told the newspaper.
Although the minister did not name any specific firms, a reference to encryption suggests Facebook-owned WhatsApp is one of the platforms being called out (the UK’s Home Secretary has also previously directly attacked WhatsApp’s use of end-to-end encryption as an aid to criminals, as well as repeatedly attacking e2e encryption itself).
“Because of encryption and because of radicalization, the cost… is heaped on law enforcement agencies,” Wallace said. “I have to have more human surveillance. It’s costing hundreds of millions of pounds. If they continue to be less than co-operative, we should look at things like tax as a way of incentivizing them or compensating for their inaction.
“Because content is not taken down as quickly as they could do, we’re having to de-radicalize people who have been radicalized. That’s costing millions. They can’t get away with that and we should look at all options, including tax,” he added.
Last year in Europe the German government agreed a new law targeting social media firms over hate speech takedowns. The so-called NetzDG law came into effect in October — with a three-month transition period for compliance (which ended yesterday). It introduces a regime of fines of up to €50M for social media platforms that fail to remove illegal hate speech after a complaint (within 24 hours in straightforward cases; or within seven days where evaluation of content is more difficult).
UK parliamentarians investigating extremism and hate speech on social platforms via a committee enquiry also urged the government to impose fines for takedown failures last May, accusing tech giants of taking a laissez-faire approach to moderating hate speech.
Tackling online extremism has also been a major policy theme for UK prime minister Theresa May’s government, and one which has attracted wider backing from G7 nations — converging around a push to get social media firms to remove content much faster.