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Internet giants given choice: help fight terrorism or face tax bombardment

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The battle between internet giants and government has carried over from 2017 to 2018, as UK Government warns of a tax blitz unless citizen data is opened up to intelligence and enforcement agencies.

Over the last 12 months the UK Government has been battling the internet giants, such as Facebook and Google, on the PR front, using fearmongering techniques to convince the general public the loss of privacy rights and security is justified in the fight against terrorism. Fortunately, the idea of building backdoors into security perimeters was successfully beaten back by the technology industry, and now the weapon is financial.

Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime Ben Wallace told the Sunday Times the internet companies will face a multimillion-pound tax raid unless they do more to help government agencies tackle terrorism. Whether this threat will worry the likes of Twitter or Microsoft remains to be seen, though we have our doubts. We suspect the tens of millions spent on lawyers at the internet companies means they will be better at navigating around taxes than the UK government will be at collecting them.

Wallace’s verbal tirade at the internet giants is down to the access governments are granted to data held in various data centres around the world, as well as the encrypted messages which are enabled by apps such as WhatsApp. The argument here is that if these companies can use this information to offer advertising services to third-parties, it should also be used to counter nefarious individuals who seek to do harm.

Wallace does sort of have a point. The internet giants could do more to tackle extremist content and hate campaigns online, but handing a backdoor key to the government, allowing intelligence agencies unlimited access to our personal information on feeble foundations is a couple of thousand steps too far. So far the government has not been able to table a suitable deal to the internet companies which creates a collaborative framework for intelligence agencies, while also maintaining data protection rights of citizens.

“They will ruthlessly sell our details to loans and soft-porn companies but not give it to our democratically elected government,” said Wallace.

While such comments are worthy of a retweet, or will entertain a few people down the pub, Wallace has not put forward a valid, complete argument. Social media sites exist because the user has given permission for Facebook or Twitter to use certain bits of information for advertising services. The user has not given permission to be monitored by the government. Secondly, the data used in these advertising services are generally anonymized; government activities would be individual specific.

In both of these examples, data protection and privacy rights are violated, aside from circumstances were warrants are granted. Wallace is comparing apples to pears.

Unfortunately attacks like these are cheap efforts by government officials to militarize the general public against the internet giants through PR. If you actually look at the facts, the internet giants are quite co-operative.

Prior to Christmas, several of the internet firms released transparency reports on how many requests they had from the government for information, and how many times they complied to the request. Over the first six months of 2017, the UK government made 32,643 requests to Google for user data. 74% of these requests were granted. 6,845 requests were made to Facebook, with 90% being successful.

When there is a legal and justifiable basis to offer the government data on an individual, the internet giants tend to comply and aid the government. Wallace seems to be chasing a blank cheque, which should not be allowed under any circumstances.

Various governments around the work have proved they cannot be trusted to snoop, while maintaining the rights of individuals. To access this information there should be justification. It should be measured on a case-by-case basis, otherwise what is the point in having privacy rights.

Unfortunately this is just another example of a government which has not adapted to the era of connectivity, struggling to figure out rules for the digital environment. What this possibly demonstrates is the inability of the UK government to tackle the internet giants intellectually through legislation and regulation. If all else falls, threaten to heavily tax a commercially driven organization and that might get results.

Until Wallace and his cronies are able to provide a solution which does not compromise the security of the platforms, maintains privacy principles, is legally sound and creates a system of accountability, the internet giants should continue to push back against the Big Brother ambitions of government.

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