Will the United Kingdom’s Online Harms White Paper Curb Extremism but Allow Expression?

On April 8, Theresa May turned to Twitter to make a bold statement. Upon the release of the United Kingdom’s Online Harms White Paper, a tweet noted, “The era of social media companies regulating themselves is over.” The 102-page policy document urges the establishment of new regulations which will hold all social media companies liable for harmful and extremist content. Is this a sensible way to deal with digital extremism?

Social media companies and platforms have a part to play in making the internet a safer place. In order to combat harmful content, the United Kingdom seeks to hold companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter responsible. Authorities in the United Kingdom plan to enforce penalties for harmful content, which would be a fine of 4% of global turnover or 20 million euro ($23 million), whichever is greater.

In addition to the fines, the United Kingdom aspires to create a regulatory body, and enact bans and restrictions on user content, limiting what citizens can view. Regulations on internet freedoms and bans will undoubtedly anger citizens. Countries such as Russia and China have similar authoritarian beliefs. Liberal democratic nations adopting parallel legislation potentially legitimizes such restrictions and can be viewed as a victory for extremists.

Overreaction by the government of the United Kingdom has extremely detrimental consequences. Changing online regulations and censoring citizens is a flawed legislative move. Passing this particular law encourages extremists because it shows their actions initiate socio-political change and cause legislative action. Further, it provokes pessimism in financial markets by causing a greater risk for tech startups.

Proactive responses to digital extremism and hoping to make the internet a safer place are at the core of the United Kingdom’s argument. The May government is correct in its mission, but its execution needs more work. Fining social media companies and censorship of user content seems more like a punishment rather than a solution.

The United Kingdom is faced with a few considerations should it proceed with the proposed White Paper. Public safety is of the utmost importance, as is the ability of free expression. Fining companies for the negligence of extreme content is justifiable. As extreme content lingers, it continues to spread. Thus, social media platforms are directly responsible for stopping hateful and extremist messaging.

Major social media companies — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — must update their Terms of Service and ask all users to act as moderators. If content appears to be approaching an extreme or violent conclusion, it should be reported by the community. False reports regarding extreme content should have penalties as well, in order to ensure users are being responsible. This avenue permits millions to help protect cyberspace on their own terms. It would allow citizens to come together to combat online hate, which presents a powerful message against extremism.

If the UK plans on changing its online usage and how its users interact in online spaces, the people should have a say. The solutions in the United Kingdom’s Online Harms White Paper need to be more focused. The 12 weeks of consultation have begun and will end July 1st.

Currently, the resolutions to the proposed issues are very broad and seem severe. The best way to ensure a safer internet space is to create a unified community of users. Group accountability will help ensure the internet is a safer place as the people of the United Kingdom define it. This could be the beginning of a safer internet and a model for other countries.

ISIL: Cathedral Attack in the Sulu Province

Source: Reuters 2019

Abu Sayyaf attacked the Catholic Church, Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, during mass on January 27th in the Sulu Province of the Southern Philippines. The Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) claims the two back-to-back bombings were the work of suicide bombers, which was later confirmed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano.

At least 20 people were killed in the attack and more than 100 individuals were injured. In response to this attack, the Filipino Government is on high alert and is conducting military operations to “destroy” Abu Sayyaf. President Duterte also declared martial law until the criminals are found.

Abu Sayyaf is a branch of the ISIL that has been active in the Philippines since 1991. The group is known for bombing a ferry in 2004, killing 116 people, as well as various kidnappings for ransom. The attack in Jolo is one of their largest to date, with 131 total casualties, as calculated by our Active Intelligence Database.

A week prior to the bombing, a referendum was conducted on the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which would allow for expanded autonomy of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. While experts don’t believe the two events are related, it’s possible that the attack was meant to further divide the Muslim and Christian communities in the province.

The Philippine government has taken proper steps to reassure the community through security personnel outside places of worship and patrols through large public areas. President Duterte responded with strong and ruthless commentary on the church bombing by declaring the military to take care of the threat posed by Abu Sayyaf by any means necessary.

The military adamantly agreed with Duterte and staged multiple manhunts to find Abu Sayyaf members behind the attack. The Army suffered a few fatalities in the altercations with Abu Sayyaf militants before making a major arrest.

On February 4th, five Abu Sayyaf members believed to have orchestrated the attack surrendered to the Philippine Army. This arrest, coupled with strong words from the President, undoubtedly relieved the fears of citizens in Jolo and throughout the Philippines.

At least 14 main suspects are still at large; however, the Philippine government needs to recognize that these main suspects are only one part of a larger terrorist organization. Abu Sayyaf has at least 400 members and the main suspects that the Army has in custody represent a small subset of the overall group.

The Philippine Government should gather the information they can from the members that surrendered in order to take down Abu Sayyaf. While the attack doesn’t seem related to the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the government needs to keep the referendum in mind as it symbolizes movement towards peace for many in the region.