We are all feeling raw and angry this week, in the wake of two despicable acts of violence. At Open Rights Group, these attacks feel that bit closer to home, as the Borough attack took place close to our old offices, in places we know from our lunchtime walks.
So it is easy to understand why the government feels the need to reach out to people who are worried, angry and grieving, to say that they will leave nothing undone that might make the world safer. It is equally easy to see that the undoubted fact that terrorists use Internet tools to communicate leads directly to the government desiring to ensure that platforms like Facebook and Twitter cannot be used to incite violence.
However, it is, with a short pause for breath, equally plain that there are dangers in chasing internet companies to do literally everything possible to prevent anything unwanted from ever being published, or anything ever being said that cannot be monitored. And once you understand that this appears to be the goal the government has set itself, your reaction may well be one of a different kind of anger and betrayal.
The last thing many of us want to hear after an attack on our values as a democracy, is that the very values of our civilisation must be curtailed.
There is a kind of myopia that British politicians appear to embrace. It is possible to take time to find out what is possible or appropriate, to ensure that we do not propose measures like automatic censorship, or “limits” on encryption which could reduce our security from criminals. Good leadership should involve asking for caution, thoughtfulness and yes, challenging all of the assumptions we have made about how and where the dangers arise from.
Perhaps we have to forgive our leaders that they are fighting an election, and that this makes it harder to exercise good, calm and inspirational leadership. Perhaps it would be easier for them if they weren’t fighting for their own political careers.
However, that is too easy. The fact that the stakes are high for them is hardly the point. Their actions tell us who they are. What we learn is that Theresa May is still thinking like a Home Secretary, and comes with a Home Office wish list to ensure that internet companies behave within the confines set by the security state.
Over the last few years, the government has granted itself security powers to collect information about all of us, all the time, and extended these powers to the police for ordinary crime. It has gained powers to limit or bypass encryption.
Police censor extremist content from internet platforms without any need for a court order, nor with any particular oversight. Censorship lists are created and distributed to private companies. Now the government wants algorithms and machine learning to do this censorship work, again with little to no involvement of the courts — unless not enough material is removed.
It’s easy to see where this leads. The extremists will move on and use tools that are more censorship resistant, or that they control themselves. The information available to law enforcement may reduce, making us less safe. The rest of us will have to live with a reinvigorated system of censorship, ready to be applied to other issues.
Over the next few days and weeks, our politicians and the media, will call for many things to be done to prevent yet another attack. We need to ensure that any response upholds the liberties and values that the terrorists want to take away.
Jim Killock is the executive director of the human rights organisation, Open Rights Group