Google and Facebook face penalties if they don’t stop online hate
Theresa May and French president agree to create laws to punish failure to remove jihadist propaganda from websites
By Jessica Elgot
Technology companies such as Google and Facebook must do more to curb the “poisonous propaganda” that fuels terror attacks such as the atrocities in London and Manchester, the prime minister has said, launching a UK-French pact to explore new ways to curb the spread of online hate.
At a bilateral meeting in Paris on Tuesday, both French president Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May agreed to explore creating a new legal liability for tech companies if they fail to remove inflammatory content, which could include penalties such as fines.
The joint campaign to tackle online radicalisation offers May a route to seize back the political agenda after a testing weekend following the election.
The French president called the agreement “a very concrete plan of action to curb jihadist propaganda on the internet”.
Regulating extremist content online was a key feature of May’s response to the terror attacks at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and on London Bridge, which both occurred during the general election campaign.
Macron backed efforts to allow the security services better access to encrypted communication, echoing the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to examine how to tackle encrypted communications between extremists. The plans have already raised concerns among privacy campaigners about state access to private citizens’ communications and how it might act as a potential gateway for hackers.
Macron said both countries “were committed to improve the means of access to encrypted content in conditions that preserve the confidentiality of messages”.
Downing Street said the initiative would put pressure on companies such as Google and Facebook if they failed to counter extremist content, building on agreements made by world leaders at talks at the G7 in Sicily last month.
“Our discussions today have focused on the greatest security challenge our two countries face – tackling terrorism and rooting out the extremism that fuels it,” May said at the press conference in the Elysée Palace gardens, standing beside Macron.
The prime minister said counter-terrorism cooperation between Franco-British intelligence agencies was already strong, but the pair agreed more should be done to tackle the terrorist threat online. May said the UK was determined to “halt the spread of extremist material and poisonous propaganda that is warping young minds”.
Both countries would step up their efforts to engage tech companies, May saying corporations should “abide by their social responsibility to … remove harmful content from their networks”.
The joint UK-French campaign will “ensure that the internet cannot be used as a safe space for terrorists and criminals”, she said. “Crucially, our campaign will also include exploring creating a legal liability for tech companies if they fail to take the necessary action to remove unacceptable content.
Both May and Macron paid tribute to the French victims of the London Bridge attack and the pair laid a wreath at the Stade de France on Tuesday night at the half-time of the England versus France friendly match to honour both French and British victims of recent terror attacks.
“I offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the three innocent French victims killed in the terrible attack in London last week,” May said.
“It shows so painfully how these attacks are not attacks on one place but on us all. A British man, Nick Alexander, of course also tragically died in the Bataclan attack in Paris in November 2015. I know you stand with us against this evil.”
Later on Tuesday at a friendly international football match between France and England in the evening, the Oasis song Don’t Look Back in Anger was played by the band of the Republican Guard, a song which has become a tribute anthem to the victims of the Manchester bombing, as England fans sang along with arms spread.
May and Macron both looked on as French fans held a banner at the side of the pitch which read: “United with the cities of London and Manchester.” Both leaders were set to meet families of the victims of the Bataclan massacre on Tuesday evening.
“Both our countries have sadly experienced the horrors of terrorism all too recently,” May said. “Our visit to the Stade de France will be a show of solidarity against terrorism and extremism. We are united in our total condemnation of terrorism and our commitment to stamp out this evil.”
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, joined May for the press conference in Paris. She will meet Macron’s new interior minister, Gérard Collomb, in the coming days to hammer out the details of the policy initiative.
No 10 said the talks would also advance the establishment of an industry-led forum to develop shared technical and policy solutions to the problem, as agreed by world leaders at last month’s G7 summit in Italy. The two countries also plan to hold a summit on defence co-operation before the end of the year in the UK.