Prime Minister David Cameron has called on internet companies to change the way they act in relation to communications between potential terrorists after a report claimed the status quo was putting Britons at greater risk of attack.
Speaking in response to a report published today by the Intelligence and Security Committee regarding the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, Cameron said its warning over the lack of response internet companies was “a very serious finding”.
Cameron said: “The report does not name the company and it would not be appropriate for me to give a running commentary on the level of co-operation from different internet companies. But the Committee is clear that they have serious concerns about the approach of a number of communications service providers based overseas.”
He highlighted emergency legislation put in place this summer to clarify “beyond doubt” that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act applies to companies delivering services in the UK, saying co-operation had improved with “a number of companies” as a result.
Cameron also noted the appointment of Sir Nigel Sheinwald as a special envoy “to address concerns that there could be a conflict between UK and US law in this area”.
He indicated further changes could be afoot in the new year.
“Terrorists are using the internet to communicate with each other. We must not accept that these communications are beyond the reach of the authorities or the internet companies themselves,” he told the House of Commons. “We have taken action. We have passed legislation. And we will continue to do everything we can. And we expect the internet companies to do all they can too.”
“Their networks are being used to plot murder and mayhem. It is their social responsibility to act on this. And we expect them to live up to it.”
Earlier today, Malcolm Rifkind revealed the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee report into the murder of Rigby last May.
The report found that MI5 could not have prevented the brutal killing of the British soldier outside his barracks. But it noted one “decisive” issue – an online exchange between killer Michael Adabowale and an extremist overseas, in which he expressed his plans to murder a soldier “in the most graphic and emotive manner”.
Rifkind described this as “highly significant”, adding: “Had MI5 had access to this exchange at the time, Adebowale would have become a top priority. There is then a significant possibility that MI5 would have been able to prevent the attack.”
But it would have been “highly unlikely” for intelligence agencies to uncover the reference themselves, he said. Instead, the report suggests blame should lie with the internet company.
“The one party which could have made a difference was the company on whose system the exchange took place,” Rifkind said. “However, this company does not regard themselves as under any obligation to ensure that they identify such threats, or to report them to the authorities.
“We find this unacceptable: however unintentionally, they are providing a safe haven for terrorists.”
But it was not just this one forum that came in for censure – all “major US companies” approached by the committee said they did not monitor or review suspicious content, and none of them regard themselves as compelled to comply with UK warrants. This means that even if MI5 had sought information before an attack, it would have been unlikely to yield anything.
“They appear to accept no responsibility for the services they provide,” Rifkin added. “This is of very serious concern: the capability of the agencies to access the communications of their targets is essential to their ability to detect and prevent terrorist threats in the UK.
“We note that the government has already started to take action on these issues, through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 and the appointment of the special envoy on intelligence and law enforcement data sharing. However, the problem is acute: until it is resolved the British public are exposed to a higher level of threat.”
This is not the first time internet companies have been accused of facilitating terrorism.
Earlier this month, the new director of GCHQ Robert Hannigan courted controversy by blaming WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook – and implicating others such as Google and Apple – for enabling Islamic State to “promote itself, intimidate people and radicalise new recruits”.