The topic of extremism on social media is not new, but it's not going away - mainly because governments aren't happy with the way social media companies are tackling the problem. While the past talk has focused on fining companies for not removing infringing content quickly enough, the UK could be considering extra taxes on the companies that don't seem to be taking the problem seriously enough.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime Ben Wallace said that the new taxes could be imposed on social media companies like Facebook and Google unless they do more to deal with extremism on their platforms. While he didn't give any specific details, the Times interview claimed that the new levies would be some sort of windfall tax similar to those imposed on private utility companies by Tony Blair's government in 1997.
Wallace really wasn't too happy about the issue either, criticising social media companies and accusing them of putting profits ahead of public safety. He also criticised the fact that they're seemingly happy to sell user data to advertisers, but wouldn't share it with governments that were spending millions of pounds trying to fight online extremism.
“We should stop pretending that because they sit on beanbags in T-shirts they are not ruthless profiteers. They will ruthlessly sell our details to loans and soft-porn companies but not give it to our democratically elected government.”
Wallace also blamed encrypted messaging services for making life easier for terrorists, because it wouldn't be a conversation about terrorism without the government trying to weaken the encryption again. He specifically called out the Facebook-owned WhatsApp which has consistently refused to add back doors to its services that are designed to let security services and law enforcement intercept user messages.
“Because of encryption and because of radicalisation, the cost of that is heaped on law enforcement agencies. I have to have more human surveillance. It’s costing hundreds of millions of pounds. If they [internet firms] continue to be less than co-operative, we should look at things like tax as a way of incentivising them or compensating for their inaction."
Again the government seems oblivious to the fact that there's no such thing as a back door only they have access to.
Meanwhile Facebook and Google have hit back at Wallace's claims. A spokesperson for Google-owned YouTube said that the company is doing more to tackle online extremism every day, while Facebook executive Simon Milner had this to say:
“Mr Wallace is wrong to say that we put profit before safety, especially in the fight against terrorism,” he said in an emailed statement. “We’ve invested millions of pounds in people and technology to identify and remove terrorist content.”
Facebook reportedly removes 83 per cent of extremist content within an hour of it being uploaded, and has promised to double the number of people working for its safety and security team to 20,000 before the end of the year. YouTube also claims that 83 per cent of extremist content is removed without users having to report it first.
Forcing social media giants to do more about tackling extremism is a noble goal, particularly since there's probably no such thing as being "too vigilant". 83 per cent is a decent figure for both Facebook and YouTube, but it means there's still a way to go. Maybe extra taxes will be an extra incentive, because we know damn well that big companies will do whatever they can to avoid paying tax. [Sunday Times via Reuters]