Restricting web freedoms is not the right response to terrorism

When things look awful and stressful there’s a human tendency to grab hold of simplistic solutions, especially if you’re a politician. The British Prime Minister’s vow to force the big Internet companies to stop allowing safe places to terrorists by curtailing what can be posted and limiting encryption is such a situation (and it’s an idea our own politicians keep raising too).

I’ve written before that Google and Facebook should be made responsible for the content they publish, when they act as publishers (Facebook the genie is out of the bottle and you’re responsible), but the flip-side of that argument is that you can’t hold Facebook and other responsible when they are acting solely as common carriers, like the telephone service. Facebook should be taking down hateful public posts as a matter of course, they should be doing everything they can to fake news propagating, and so on. But they should not be held responsible for every message I send to my friends – if for no other reason than at the point we sacrifice such freedoms the terrorists are winning.

Equally, removing encryption so that authorities can peek at what’s being said seems like a sensible idea – if you have nothing to hide what’s the problem? There are two problems. The first is the impracticability of what’s being suggested: You can’t stop encryption in all it’s forms. You might be able to prevent big players from using it, but then you just drive terrorists and drug smugglers and other bad players to other places. There’s too much open-source encryption software, too many possible routes, for anyone to completely shut down encrypted communication: The bad guys will simply be driven into other parts of the Internet to no effective end.

And let’s not get into a discussion of end-to-end encryption and banks and the tax office. Break that and you break the entire online financial system.

So really the only people who’d be having their messages unecrypted is the average person with no reason to go to any lengths to hide anything. And again, are these appropriate freedoms to give up in the face of extremism when history tells us that abuse of such capacity to peek into people’s lives by people in power is rife? ‘So what?’ many might say – but we don’t have to look further than countries like China where big brother is always watching, and acting when it doesn’t like what it sees, to find what it means when governments have untrammeled rights of access and censorship.

All round the world terrorists, attacking without any seemingly clear agenda, seem to be forcing us to create our own restrictions on the freedoms that define our western democracies. None of the recent terrorist attacks have been accompanied by an agenda that is open to solution – in stark contrast to days gone by with the IRA for example where you knew what their deplorable acts were trying to achieve. The lack of clarity makes responses so terribly difficult, but it’s a mistake for politicians to grab hold of overly simple rhetoric just to look like they are responding.

There will always be sacrifices of some personal freedoms to maintain safety – in Britain and Australia increasing armed police checks are one of these, and probably one that is both appropriate and effective. But we have to be very careful not to do the terrorists work for them by undermining the freedoms that define us – especially when the suggestions will not really impact the terrorists at all.

I could easily be persuaded to another view on the details of removing encryption or censoring social media. But I’m not movable on the idea that we need to stop jumping at simplistic solutions to complex problems.

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