Experts say Theresa May’s internet policies could make it harder to track extremists online

Tackling terrorism threat online
WATCH: In the wake of the London terror attacks, governments are looking at ways to prevent further loss of life. British Prime Minister Theresa May said internet companies must help prevent terrorists from finding a safe space in the dark corners of the web. But as Mike Le Couteur reports, eliminating that threat isn't so easy.

British Prime Minister Theresa May wants internet firms and social media companies to crack down on extremist content.

However, experts say that  doing so could make investigating the online activities of potential extremists more difficult.

Following a Manchester suicide bombing that killed 22 people, and more recently a terror attack on London Bridge that killed seven people, May released a statement saying that the internet firms must be regulated to combat the growing threat of terrorism.

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“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,” says the statement.

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According to this statement, May hopes to introduce a levy on social media companies to prevent extremist activity and launch an international alliance between democratic countries to fight extremism on the internet. Little else has been revealed about May’s future plans for reigning in the digital space, but these sentiments echo her previous calls for internet regulation,

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Most influential of these is the controversial Investigatory Powers Act (or Snooper’s charter) that became law last year, which gives the U.K. vast online surveillance powers. In addition, May recently pledged in a Conservative Manifesto to “close down online spaces” that incite violence. Furthermore, her government has long been negotiating a treaty that requires American Internet service providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, share information about extremist activity with British intelligence.

Jibey Asthappan, Director of the National Security program at New Haven University, explains that several factors may complicate May’s attempts to regulate the internet

“Those that are making the policies don’t necessarily understand the infrastructure,” says Asthappan.

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First, he explains that tracking terrorist activity has become increasingly difficult because of the many ways extremists can hide their information online.

“If it’s encrypted, we wouldn’t see that outright. It may be hidden in one format or another. It could be hidden in words, or it could be hidden in a file. There’s no one method to use to pick up those type of messages. This is a very complicated issue,” says Asthappan.

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He goes on to explain that monitoring ISPs may be more effective than attempting to regulate content posted on social media platforms.

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“ISPs could be used as a gatekeeper. As in, they could be a filtering agent on this… ISPs aren’t necessarily the source, but they are the gate that allows anyone to connect [to the internet], and they can monitor traffic from there better than if you go to the individual webpages,” explains Asthappan.

Social media companies, however, are the only internet firms who’ve officially responded to the U.K. government’s proposals.

“Using a combination of technology and human review, we work aggressively to remove terrorist content from our platform as soon as we become aware of it — and if we become aware of an emergency involving imminent harm to someone’s safety, we notify law enforcement,” said Simon Milner, Director of Policy at Facebook in an emailed statement.

Twitter also said it was working to tackle the spread of militant propaganda, though Asthappan says these measures may only be useful in the short term.

Eric Jardine, a fellow with the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) and assistant political science professor at Virginia Polytechnic, adds that law enforcement uses social media platforms to monitor extremist activity. Restricting communication on those platforms may also inadvertently remove a source of intel for investigators.

“There’s a lot of information that can be data-mined. If you restrict the content that can be shared, you remove an information source,” he says.

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Furthermore though, Jardine and Asthappan both say that May’s proposals don’t address information portals unknown to the public, which is where a large portion of terrorist activity takes place.

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“There are so many ways that a motivated individual could get around the restrictions that Great Britain or any other nation could put onto the internet that it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Their ability to actually suppress access to this information is probably going to be marginal. There’s dark web portals where you can get access to this information that are incredibly hard for a single country to block,” Jardine adds.

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He also says that these laws may even have the undesired effect of pushing more determined radicals onto unknown dark web portals.

May attended the G7 Summit following this attack, where she and other members of the Group of Seven issued a statement condemning terrorism and pressuring major internet firms to combat extremist ideologies. Many of her proposals have featured largely in her reelection campaign leading up to the U.K. general election on June 8.