Tech Terror Crackdown: Moral or Political Problem?

Boris “oh what a fun haircut I’ve got” Johnson has attacked technology firms describing the fact that they profit from advertising revenue next to extremist videos “disgusting”. Amber Rudd described the face that MI5 cannot read through Whatsapp encryption as “completely unacceptable” since such organisations are providing a “secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other”.

What these two Conservative responses provide is a conservative approach to the political problem, one that is as inadequate as the liberal approach. Johnson and Rudd’s statements thematise the problem in terms of a breakdown of morality. It is “unacceptable” that the firms display such “disgusting” conduct. Bracketting the issue for a moment that the problem isn’t really one of conduct but negligence, since the phenomenon is no grand scheme but the result of too much faith in the algorythm, the statements not only miss the point but obscure it entirely. The question is not “why aren’t they doing anything?” It is “Why is it up to them in the first place? Why is the power of censorship or lack thereof in the hands of private enterprise?”
The reason is that, rather than being some progressive liberal utopia, the internet is a progressive liberal dystopia. As I’ve talked about in the past, the ideological content of the “free” and “open” internet is identical with that of neoliberalism. The shinyness of the technology, however, tricks us into thinking something new has occurred. And yet, targetted advertising displaying government funded anti-terrorist adverts next to terrorist videos is a clear indication that nothing has changed at all.

We still have a ever smaller state that (allegedly) believes the future of society, culture and economy is to be found in private enterprise, even where that means that private companies have (allegedly) more advanced technologies. The fact is, we should not have to depend on the moral character of citizens for domestic security, even if we accept the tenuous premise that the advance of technology can be halted by virtue.

Encryption is a good case for this problem. Legislation, such as the Data Protection Act, demands that private companies keep their customers’ data secure. With the post-PRISM trend towards “data-blind” operations, where even the company cannot access your data without your password, the spirit of such laws seems to have been completed. It becomes your own responsibility to accede to the law’s demand for your data in an investigation.

The problem is this puts far to much faith in the citizen to act ethically and participate in their own conviction. At the same time, any sort of “back door” to encryption given to governments could be exploited by hackers, hence Apple’s refusal to provide a backdoor last year. It short, it is not clear that state access to privately-owned communications data can ever be secure.

However, if the data and the technology were publicly owned this would be far simpler; no backdoor would be necessary, the state could encrypt the data on behalf of citizens, not through their own password, and decrypt it in a criminal investigation. Naturally, such power could only be given to a trustworthy state, and it flies in the face of liberal open internet ideology. But, is state ownership of private data really a greater political problem than corporate ownership of private data?
In any case, freedom from the state and security are contradictory ideals that permeate liberal and conservative thinking about the internet. In practice, we can only have one or the other. I suspect however the sort of sacrifice of freedom to the state that the Tories want will have none of the benefits of public ownership.

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