Theresa May pledges crackdown on extremism in cyberspace

Theresa May accused internet companies of giving extremists a “safe space” as she expressed renewed determination to crack down on web giants. Speaking outside No 10 yesterday morning the prime minister launched her strongest attack on the role Facebook, Twitter and Google play in fomenting extremism.

“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said. “Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.

“We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.”

The party’s manifesto vowed that Britain would become “the global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet” and called for the same rules that govern life offline to apply online.

The document proposed preventing the industry from directing users to hate speech, even unintentionally, and called for internet companies “to develop technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda”.

After the Westminster terrorist attack in March Amber Rudd, the home secretary, raised the prospect of cracking down on encrypted messages sent on programmes such as WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. The perpetrator, Khalid Masood, had sent a message on WhatsApp shortly before driving his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbing a policeman. The messaging company says its service is so secure that no one but the sender and recipient can see a message, not even WhatsApp itself.

But Whitehall is understood to be more concerned about extremist content available on the internet and how the spread of footage of attacks can inspire copycat attacks.

Last night web companies insisted that they were committed to tackling extremism. Simon Milner, Facebook’s director of policy, said: “We want to provide a service where people feel safe . . . We want Facebook to be a hostile environment for terrorists.”

A Google spokesman said: “We . . . share the government’s commitment to ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online.”

Nick Pickles, Twitter’s UK head of public policy, said: “Terrorist content has no place on Twitter. We continue to expand the use of technology as part of a systematic approach to removing this type of content.

“We will never stop working to stay a step ahead, and will continue to engage with our partners across industry, government, civil society and academia.”