THE NEW BATTLE FOR BRITAIN
So who holds REAL power? Our elected Government or the greedy, cynical tech giants who invade every detail of our private lives — while protecting the secrets of terrorists and murderers . . .
FORTY years ago, one question dominated British politics. As car factories fell silent, as homes fell dark, as rubbish piled up in the streets, people would ask in frustration: ‘ Who governs? The government? Or the unions?’
The answer was a long time coming. It was only after the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, with a mandate to tame the union leaders’ power, end the culture of industrial militancy and reassert the sovereignty of the British government, that the question was finally consigned to the history books.
Four decades on, I believe it has returned to the heart of British politics. For, as in the Seventies, the Government finds itself heading for confrontation with a group of remote, unaccountable and increasingly militant opponents, who treat our nation’s elected leaders with contempt and set their own interests above those of the British people.
I am talking, of course, about the gigantic multinational technology companies — Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber and the like — whose defiance of social responsibility and contempt for national security is becoming one of the defining issues of our age.
Two days ago, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, summoned representatives of the major tech firms to Whitehall, to express her frustration at their failure to stop terrorists using their services to communicate among themselves and to distribute extremist material.
I doubt Ms Rudd offered her guests beer and sandwiches, the symbol of successive Prime Ministers’ futile attempts to rein in the militant union leaders in the Seventies. But I suspect Thursday’s meeting will produce exactly what all those meetings with the union bosses produced 40 years ago: very little.
The firms may have promised to crack down on terrorist videos online. Yet that pledge came on the same day the BBC reported that Britain is losing the battle to eradicate extremist websites from the internet.
Yesterday, it revealed that there has been a rise in worldwide searches for extremist key words, reaching half a million last year, including 54,000 searches in Britain alone.
What lies behind this latest confrontation between the Government and the big technology firms is the fallout from the dreadful attack in Westminster ten days ago.
We now know that the killer, Khalid Masood, sent a message on WhatsApp — the online messaging system owned by Facebook — just moments before his car ploughed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge.
BUT we don’t know what it said or to whom he sent it, because the company’s encryption software means the security services cannot access it.
So when, last weekend, Ms Rudd said that the Government would like to have the powers to read encrypted messages on social media platforms like WhatsApp, I struggled to see the problem.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, that I care nothing for civil liberties. After all, we in Britain are famous for valuing our freedom and bridling at government interference.
Yet, as most of us recognise, we want to enjoy that freedom without a madman blowing us up or running us down.
When terrorists strike, we don’t simply shrug our shoulders and say: ‘That’s life.’ We wonder why our security services failed to stop them; we try to learn the appropriate lessons, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
This doesn’t strike me as knee-jerk authoritarianism, just common sense.
But, of course, the tech companies and their ultralibertarian cheerleaders see things rather differently.
Cue the hysterical shrieks that the East German Stasi had bugs in everybody’s bedrooms, and that this is the slippery slope to George Orwell’s Nineteen EightyFour, with its Big Brother surveillance.
This is, of course, the world view promoted by the Guardian newspaper’s pin- up Edward Snowden, now a grateful guest of Vladimir Putin in Moscow, who leaked tens of thousands of British and American intelligence files to the media in an attempt to discredit the U.S. government’s electronic spying programmes.
Yet what really baffles me about Mr Snowden and his supporters is that they elevate one principle — liberty — while ignoring all others. I like liberty as much as anybody, but I like security that protects me from being killed, too.
Of course, I would prefer not to have my phone and email conversations tapped — but which of us would genuinely elevate our privacy above the lives of innocent men, women and children?
I can already hear the howls of protest from the libertarian fringe. But do they really think that the men and women who drive into GCHQ every morning from their suburban Cheltenham homes are itching to become a British Stasi?
Behind all this is a deeper and more serious issue. We will be debating the tension between liberty and security for as long as we are debating anything at all.
THE bigger question, though, is the looming conflict between national governments and the vast technology giants that think themselves above the nation state.
This is not the first time, after all, that the British government has come up against their intransigence: ministers have long been campaigning against the easy availability online not just of hardcore pornography, but of images of child abuse and violent jihadist propaganda.
The technology companies, of course, claim that these are nothing to do with them. But they provide a platform for them: surely they cannot duck their responsibility for ever.
Thus far, the Government’s early efforts have achieved nothing.
Two years ago, for instance, David Cameron demanded so-called ‘back doors’ to be built into message encryption software so that the security services would be able to monitor conversations between suspected terrorists.
Under pressure from the American-owned technology companies, however, Mr Cameron backed down. And we now know that this was part of a pattern.
Last week, the Mail revealed the extraordinary story of how Mr Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, put pressure on London’s then mayor, Boris Johnson, to halt plans to curtail the business model of the American minicab app company, Uber, which has mercilessly eaten away at the livelihoods of black cab drivers in London, and threatens the survival of taxi services in other British cities.
What makes this so shocking is not just the fact that Mr Cameron appears to have been influenced by his friendship with Uber’s senior vice-president, Rachel Whetstone. It’s that like so many multinational technology firms, Uber pays tax at a rate so low — effectively just 1 per cent — that it might as well not be paying at all.
It is a familiar story. Google, for example, employs almost 2,500 people in this country, but pays a tax rate of just 3 per cent.
Indeed, what firms such as Uber, Google, Facebook and Apple have in common is that they avoid paying their fair share of taxes, yet track their customers’ behaviour and hoard their data.
In other words, they cynically profit by leeching off every detail of our lives.
And yet they have the brass neck, the flagrant hypocrisy, to invoke the principles of privacy and freedom when the security services come to call!
You can see why Government ministers have become convinced that these over-mighty subjects simply do not care about the wider national interest.
Take WhatsApp, the secure online messaging service used by Khalid Masood before the Westminster attack. Its chief executive is a fortysomething U.S. computer programmer named Jan Koum, who is estimated to be worth $9.1 billion.
In Koum’s own words: ‘We want to know as little about our users as possible. We don’t know your name, your gender . . . we have not, we do not and we will not ever sell your personal information to anyone. Period. End of story.’
Alas, such pious assurances proved worthless when WhatsApp started sharing more than a billion users’ phone numbers with Facebook, so the latter could target its adverts at individual consumers. Yet this is the same company that has flatly refused to help the Government look at Masood’s phone messages!
LITTLE wonder that earlier this week the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, accused the technology barons of ‘ earning huge revenues but not [being] willing to play their part defending the open society from which they make their money’.
If that sounds harsh, just remember that after the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in London four years ago, a Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee blasted one internet company for its failure to inform MI5 that Michael Adebowale, one of the killers, had posted messages which should have sent shivers down our spines.
But because the system was automated — in other words, operated by algorithms — no human being had even bothered to find out what was going on.
The firm was not named by the Parliamentary Committee. But we now know that it was — surprise, surprise — Facebook, which is based in the United States.
Bear in mind that these are not just companies: they are global behemoths with unparalleled reach and power. They wield immense influence over millions of ordinary Britons’ lives. Most of us use their products on a daily, even hourly basis: even Amber Rudd, ironically, uses WhatsApp.
Yet you would have to go far, I suspect, to find more flagrant examples of corporate irresponsibility. Remember how Apple reacted when the FBI asked them to unlock the iPhone of an Islamist terrorist who took part in an attack that killed 14 people in California in 2015. Did they co- operate? Well, I imagine you can guess the answer.
In the end, the FBI, desperate to find out whether the man had associates plotting more attacks, paid a hacker over $1 million to access his mobile phone.
In the meantime, Apple smugly sat on what the technology barons and their allies laughably regard as the moral high ground. Perhaps the best example of Silicon Valley’s smug selfrighteousness is Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook, who wastes no opportunity to pose as a champion of privacy against the police and intelligence services.
When the FBI asked for help unlocking the terrorist’s phone in California, he noisily refused. In a blistering open letter to all Apple customers, Cook warned of the ‘chilling’ privacy breach posed by the agency’s request.
If they had to comply over terrorism, he claimed, they might have to do the same for investigators in a tax or divorce case.
The truth is that companies like these are simply not interested in what national governments want. They see themselves as above the ordinary responsibilities — such as paying their tax dues — that apply to the rest of us.
‘We will not help any government, including our own, hack or attack any customer anywhere,’ the president of Microsoft declared this week.
That, I think, says it all. Not even if there were another 9/11- style atrocity? Not if there were a war?
The truth, I think, is that these companies are run by people who see themselves not as members of a national community, but as members of a secretive, supernational digital elite, floating above the common herd on clouds of their own hot air.
They are, in fact, precisely the kind of people of whom Theresa May famously said last autumn: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, then you’re a citizen of nowhere.’
Her words might have been written specifically to describe the tech giants. Indeed, a moment later Mrs May said: ‘If you’re a household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism… I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on any more.’
YET the tech giants have not changed their ways. As the past few days have shown beyond doubt, they have no stake in British society and little commitment to the greater good.
There is a nice irony in the fact that this issue has come to the fore in the very week that Mrs May sent her letter to Brussels triggering Britain’s exit from the European Union. After all, we have heard much in the last year about ‘taking back control’.
But firms like Google and Facebook have much more influence over our daily lives, and far more power for good or ill, than entire legions of EU bureaucrats. Isn’t it time our Government took back control from them, too?
Mrs May has shown herself admirably keen to stand up for national identity and the nation state, and I suspect that taking on the technology bosses would prove a very popular battle.
Above all, though, it is a battle she must win. It is no exaggeration to say that our national security may well depend upon it.