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Google vs governments - let the new battle for free speech begin

It is too easy, sometimes, to forget that new media is media at all

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

Imagine there was one newspaper that landed all the scoops. Literally all of them. Big news, silly news, the lot. When those girlfriendless, finger-wagging freaks in Syria and Iraq opted to behead another aid worker, it would be reported here first. Likewise when nude photographs of a Hollywood actress were stolen by a different bunch of girlfriendless freaks. Hell of a newspaper, this one. Imagine it.

After a while, imagine that western governments began to realise that this newspaper had sources that their own security services just couldn’t rival. So imagine that the editors of this mighty, astonishing newspaper were summoned to Downing Street and told to hand it all over. Names, contact details, locations, known associates — the works. It wouldn’t be temperate, this meeting. In the aftermath, various sources would describe it as ‘a bollocking’. And they might protest, these various editors, that their job was only to report on the world, not to police it, and that if they began to hand over sources then their sources would merely go elsewhere, to rivals who would not. But the government wouldn’t care about that. ‘Do as we say,’ the politicians, mandarins and security chiefs would say. ‘Do as we say, or we’ll make your lives a bloody misery.’ And imagine how you’d feel about that.

Now call this newspaper ‘Google’, and watch your conceptual world swivel slightly. Of course, Google isn’t really a newspaper. In fact, it may be the greatest enemy that newspapers have; bastardising copy, mocking copy-right and gradually forcing a whole industry to swap editorial judgment for search engine optimisation. Yet in terms of pure news, Ofcom reports that Google’s news arm is read by more people than the Sky News website. Google also owns YouTube, which hosts so much online video that it virtually is online video. For almost all other internet news, meanwhile, it is the first port of call, via search. It is easy, sometimes, to forget that new media is media at all.

Last month the new head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, described US technology companies as ‘the command and control networks of choice’ for terrorists. This week, we found out more — one of the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby had boasted on Facebook about his intent to murder a soldier, and his account was closed without anyone alerting the authorities. Just like everybody else, terrorists like to email, message, tweet and Facebook each other. They like to watch and upload videos and download documents, albeit of fairly niche bloodthirsty and bomb-making-ish sorts.

The revelations of the National Security Agency defector Edward Snowden had limited traction in this country, possibly because they were mainly in the Guardian and most people drifted off. In both liberty-loving America and surveillance-hating Germany, however, they hit like a bomb. Since then, pretty much all major internet outfits — Google, Apple, Microsoft and others — have begun to enable encryption of their services by default. This makes life hard for hackers, but also means that it’s no longer enough for security services just to intercept your communications if they reckon you’re a wrong ’un. Now they need to decode them, too. If they can. ‘What concerns me,’ said James Comey, the director of the FBI, ‘is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.’

In this country, when law enforcement wants information from technology companies, the process — at least officially — is cumbersome. Perhaps there’s an inbox they want a look at, or perhaps a video nasty has been uploaded and they want to know where from, or to have it taken down. Warrants and lawyers are required. For the most part, the companies are disinclined to be more proactive, not least because it’s a lot of work. By some calculations, 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. And, while YouTube certainly has algorithms that allow it immediately to identify, say, a samizdat copy of the new Taylor Swift song, identifying an amateurish video of a man in a desert on his knees is a bit more complicated. And at any rate, why should they, when the same stuff is being broadcast around the world?

David Cameron declared this week that companies ‘have a moral responsibility to act’ if they discover anything related to terrorism from any of their users. Probably they do, but generating only a few false positives — the celebrated case of Paul Chambers joking about blowing up Robin Hood airport is one example — would cause any company enormous reputational damage. Ultimately, there’s no means of monitoring terrorists that doesn’t leave every-body else thinking you’re monitoring them, too.

Think of Britain’s experience over the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which was introduced to allow the surveillance of serious criminals, and expanded, chaotically, to enable councils to spy on people suspected of fiddling school places. Make it much, much easier for Special Branch to read Geoffrey Al-Wannabi-Jihadi’s email, in other words, and how long until the local council can read yours, and use the fact you booked a rafting holiday as an excuse to cancel your disabled badge?

Think of the Leveson recommendations about press regulation, rendered nonsensical because they couldn’t cope with the online world. To take a psychological view, perhaps many technology companies simply represent an existential affront to governments, because they embody that which cannot be controlled. It may be for this reason that, in every direction, here and abroad, you will find governments chivvying away at them.

Vast amounts of noise were made last year about David Cameron and Theresa May’s successful plan to make internet firms block searches for child abuse images. In truth, the proposals were almost meaningless; few paedophiles use Google, and if they did, they wouldn’t have to use British Google. Yet it functioned as a flex of muscle; a stamp of wishful authority by a government keen to pretend it has powers it does not. You could understand something similar by the EU’s absurd ‘right to be forgotten’, by which individuals can demand that embarrassing results are removed from search results. Again, the practical effects are negligible. It was a show of force.

Notably, when companies like Google and Facebook get beaten up over privacy in Germany, it happens for exactly the opposite reasons to over here — not for co-operating with governments too little, but for doing so too much. Angela Merkel has made noises about forcing such companies to store the data of European customers in Europe, precisely so that Snowden’s former employers can’t get hold of it.

Europe, however, has its own existential problems with Google. According to some in the European Parliament, the American company is a monopoly abusing its dominance of the marketplace, and should be broken up, thereby allowing all those Croatian email, German social media and Polish search industries to flourish, as all good Europeans should wish. A vote to this effect was being taken as The Spectator went to press. In truth, of course, the parliament has no power over this sort of thing whatsoever, and merely wants to give a nudge to a similar anti-trust investigation being undertaken by the European Commission. Again, this is an institution seeing something it cannot control, and minding.

If these vast new media empires were railroads, or sewage systems, or fibre-optic networks, then the clamour from governments would be to counter their own impotence by nationalising them. Yet this shows precisely why companies such as Google and Facebook are not utilities of any traditional sort. Whatever the EC’s investigation concludes, the broader truth will clearly be that these companies have thrived not primarily by hobbling the competition, but by diving into perhaps the fiercest and purest marketplace that there has ever been, and simply excelling at it. It’s a hassle to change your gas, or even your phone service. Changing your search engine takes seconds. But hardly anybody ever does.

Comprehending this tenuousness also helps you to comprehend quite how pointless it is for security services and technology companies to fight. If Google and the like cracked on encryption and rolled over for every state demand, would that make us safer? Perhaps, but only for a week or two. For as long as there are other services more secure, or even just more obscure, those who do not wish to be seen will use them. The security services must know this, and increasingly I struggle to comprehend why they pretend not to. Almost by reflex, government discusses digital surveillance from a starting point of whispered obscurity. If they want these companies to hand over stuff, then they should pass laws compelling them to. That’s what the rule of law means.

You can see why vast technology companies vex governments. They are mammon incarnate, pretending to be holistic yogurt stands; monoliths run by Silicon Valley billionaires who feign humility by occasionally wearing sandals. At least from a statist perspective, they are the triumph of corporatism; supra-national entities powerful enough to smirk at government fury, and brush it away as one might a flea.

Most of all, their services empower people, terrorists or not, to act in ways that the state finds hard to curb. One day, global politics will learn to deal with this, and accept it as a new given. Before then, though, expect a big old fight.

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