As is sadly all too common after an act of terrorism, freedom on the internet is also under attack – and almost entirely for spurious reasons. This is not, of course anything new. As the late and much lamented Douglas Adams, who died back in 2001 put it:
“I don’t think anybody would argue now that the Internet isn’t becoming a major factor in our lives. However, it’s very new to us. Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people ‘over the Internet’.”
The headlines in the aftermath of the Westminster attack were therefore far from unpredictable – though a little more extreme than most. The Daily Mail had:
“Google, the terrorists’ friend”
…and the Times noted that:
“Police search secret texts of terrorist”
…while the Telegraph suggested that:
“Google threatened with web terror law”
The implications are direct: the net is a tool for terrorists, and we need to bring in tough laws to get it under control.
And yet this all misses the key point – the implication of Douglas Adams’ quote. Terrorists use the internet to communicate and to plan because we all use the internet to communicate and plan. Terrorists use the internet to access information because we all use the internet to access information. The internet is a communicative tool, so of course they’ll use it – and as it develops and becomes better at all these things, we’ll all be able to use it in this way. And this applies to all the tools on the net. Yes, terrorists will use Google. Yes, they’ll use Facebook too. And Twitter. And WhatsApp. Why? Because they’re useful tools, systems, platforms, whatever you want to call them – and because they’re what we all use. Just as we use hire cars and kitchen knives.
That’s the real point. The internet is something we all use – and it’s immensely useful. Yes, Google is a really good way to find out information – that’s why we all use it. The Mail seems shocked by this – not that it’s particularly difficult to know how a car might be used to drive somewhere and to crash into people. It’s not specifically the ‘terrorists’ friend, but a useful tool for all of us.
The same is true about WhatsApp – and indeed other forms of communication. Yes, they can be used by ‘bad guys’, and in ways that are bad – but they are also excellent tools for the rest of us. If you do something to ban ‘secret texts’ (effectively by undermining encryption), then actually you’re banning private and confidential communications – both of which are crucial for pretty much all of us.
The same is true of privacy itself. We all need it. Undermining it – for example by building in backdoors to services like WhatsApp – undermines us all. Further, calls for mass surveillance damage us all – and attacks like that at Westminster absolutely do not help build the case for more of it. Precisely the opposite. To the surprise of no-one who works in privacy, it turns out that the attacker was already known to the authorities – so did not need to be found by mass surveillance. The same has been true of the perpetrators of all the major terrorist attacks in the West in recent years. The murderers of Lee Rigby. The Boston Bombers. The Charlie Hebdo shooters. The Sydney siege perpetrators. The Bataclan killers. None of these attacks needed identifying through mass surveillance. At a time when resources are short, to spend time, money, effort and expertise on mass surveillance rather than improving targeted intelligence, putting more human intelligence into place – more police, more investigators rather than more millions into the hands of IT contractors – is hard to defend.
More responsible journalism…
What is also hard to defend is the kind of journalism that produces headlines like that in the mail, or indeed in the Times. Journalists should know better. They should know all too well the importance of privacy and confidentiality – they know when they need to protect their own sources, and get rightfully up in arms when the police monitor their communications and endanger their sources. They should know that ‘blocking terror websites’ is a short step away from political censorship, and potentially highly damaging to freedom of expression – and freedom of the press in particular.
They should know that they’re scaremongering or distracting with their stories, their headlines and their ‘angles’. At a time when good, responsible journalism is needed more than ever – to counter the ‘fake news’ phenomenon amongst other things, and to keep people informed at a time of political turmoil all over the world – this kind of an approach is deeply disappointing.