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Facebook and Google could face taxes over extremist content, minister warns

Google and Facebook will face a tax penalty if they continue to fail to quickly remove extremist content from their platforms, the security minister has warned.

Ben Wallace told the Sunday Times that the tech giants were “ruthless profiteers” and that the government was spending millions dealing with people radicalised on their sites.

“Because of encryption and because of radicalisation, the cost of [surveillance] is heaped on law enforcement agencies,” he said.

“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 incentivis­ing them or compen­sating for their inaction.”

“We should stop pretending that because they sit on beanbags in T-shirts they are not ruthless profiteers,” he added.

The Sunday Times reported that the penalties would most likely be levied as a one-off windfall tax, akin to previous measures taken against gas, electricity, telecoms and rail industries.

Theresa May has previously threatened to fine social media firms and search engines that fail to swiftly remove illegal and extremist content.

Last month, the Committee on Standards in Public Life urged the government to prosecute companies for hosting illegal content.

Under EU legislation, social media firms are not liable for the content uploaded to their platforms because they are defined as “hosts” rather than publishers.

But the committee urged May to use Britain’s departure from the EU as an opportunity to shift the liability of illegal content on to the tech giants.

In June, Max Hill QC, the UK’s terror watchdog, criticised plans to fine tech firms that fail to remove extremist content from their platforms.

“In Germany, there was a proposal for very heavy fines to be levied against tech companies whenever they fail to take down extreme content,” he told the BBC. “Is that absolutely necessary? I’m not sure that it is.”

He added that social media firms are already working with police forces to address the issue: “I’ve sat with the relevant police unit when they identify extreme content. I’ve seen them communicating with tech companies and I’ve seen the cooperation that flows from that. It’s a question of the bulk of the material rather than a lack of cooperation in dealing with it.”

In October, a new law came into force in Germany that introduced fines of up to €50m for social media companies that regularly fail to swiftly remove illegal content.