British Prime Minister Theresa May, confronting the harsh reality of terrorism and a re-election campaign, sought to shift blame to major California tech companies after the weekend attacks in London.
“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said Sunday, after the assailants had used knives to slash and a van to run over innocent victims, killing seven people and injuring dozens more.
In May’s estimation, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple are making it far too easy for terrorists to organize acts of senseless violence and recruit followers. Indeed, their encrypted networks can be all but impossible to penetrate.
We, too, shudder at the possibility that the logistics of mass murder might have been discussed on Facebook. But as Californians, we also know that the Pandora’s box of the internet cannot be closed and that this nation’s tradition of free speech must never be curbed.
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May would have Silicon Valley prioritize internet security over privacy, essentially regulating the internet. That might deter online terrorist networks, but it also would destroy the privacy that Americans have come to expect in using iPhones and computers for everything from banking to chatting with their doctors.
As it is, privacy on the internet is increasingly endangered just by commercialization. In Washington, D.C., lobbyists for internet service providers such as Comcast have persuaded Congress to approve and President Donald Trump to sign legislation that makes it easier for them to continue selling customers’ personal data to the highest bidder – a terrible idea.
Meanwhile, at the state level, social networking companies in Sacramento last week blocked legislation that would have placed some reasonable limits on their ability to amass and sell Big Data.
But escalating the government’s already substantial power to access personal online data takes the question of privacy rights to an entirely different level. In a free society, such a move must not be taken lightly.
In 2015, then-Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, pushed through legislation that authorizes law enforcement to have access to information stored on electronic devices, but only if they get a warrant. That’s as it should be.
After the December massacre in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead in 2015, the FBI insisted that Apple provide the encrypted keys to an iPhone owned by terrorist Syed Farook.
Apple refused, knowing that sales depend on customers’ trust that their data are secure. The FBI was left to pay hackers to pry open the phone’s data. That put off the legal confrontation.
But ultimately, Congress will need to step in, if it dares. Google, Apple and Facebook have spent a combined $37 million on lobbying in Washington since January 2016, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reports.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents the Silicon Valley, responded to May’s comments by urging that she visit Silicon Valley, and offered a sensible alternative. Just as software has been deployed to prevent the dissemination of child pornography, Khanna notes, Dartmouth College computer scientist Hany Farid has developed software that could help stop the spread of extremist videos. More effort and money ought to be invested in such efforts.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others already use tools to police their networks to ferret out terrorists, but no doubt could do more. Where appropriate, they should work with authorities, just as any good corporate citizen would.
Try as it might, the heavy hand of government can’t stuff the internet genie back into the bottle. Police can, however, pay attention to information that is readily available.
The New York Times reports that one of the attackers was featured in a Channel 4 documentary, “The Jihadis Next Door.” It had been available for rent on Netflix. Though the Los Gatos company reportedly took it down on Monday, it still was available on YouTube, for the whole world to see.