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Look out Silicon Valley, here comes Brit bruiser Amber Rudd to lay down the (cyber) law

Amber alert! The UK's Home Sec is heading this way

By Kieren McCarthy, 31 Jul 2017

Executives at Facebook, Google and other terrorist-enabling online services are said to be quaking in their boots as UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd swoops into Silicon Valley this week to read them the riot act.

Rudd has been a frequent critic of social media giants, particularly after the murders in London and Manchester, and has repeatedly argued that "there should be no place for terrorists to hide."

She has proposed breaking encryption on apps like Facebook's WhatsApp, argued for legislation that would impose fines on corps like Facebook and Google if they do not remove illegal content within a specific timeframe, and pushed for outfits like Twitter to be more proactive in tackling offensive content.

In one interview, Rudd even mused about what she would tell Apple CEO Tim Cook, were she to meet him, with respect to his refusal to introduce a backdoor into Apple's systems.

"If I was talking to Tim Cook, I would not say 'open up,' we don't want to 'go into the cloud,' we don't want to do all sorts of things like that," she told the Beeb. "But I would ask him to think again."

She went on: "We want them to recognize that they have a responsibility to engage with government, to engage with law enforcement agencies, when there is a terrorist situation. We would do it all through the carefully thought-through, legally covered arrangements. But they cannot get away with saying 'we are a different situation.' They are not."

Making a hash of things

Rudd may not get the opportunity to meet with Cook while in California, however – the Home Office has only said she is meeting with representatives from YouTube and Alphabet. (Presumably that means two different groups of representatives, but since Google owns YouTube, we can't be 100 per cent certain. Rudd is not exactly tech savvy.)

It is worth noting that YouTube has been repeatedly flagged by the UK government as the most open and willing to work with the authorities on issues such as extremist content, so in that sense the company represents the lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to pushing an unwelcome message in the Bay Area.

But for all her bluster, whenever it has come down to actual action, Rudd has backtracked from her bold position demanding changes to arguing that the internet giants need to "work with" the government.

A meeting between the Home Office and representatives of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter back in March was pushed by the UK government – and Rudd herself – as some kind of showdown.

But in the end, all that emerged from the meeting was the weakest of promises that the companies would "look at all options for structuring a forum" where they would discuss the issues.

That outcome was called "a bit lame" by chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Yvette Cooper, who complained: "All the government and social media companies appear to have agreed is to discuss options for a possible forum in order to have more discussions. Having meetings about meetings just isn't good enough."

No underlings

In recent months, the Home Office has also made it plain that it is not happy talking to the UK representatives of US companies who simply stonewall discussions, and wants to talk directly to the top people.

It is likely no coincidence that Facebook second-in-command, its COO Sheryl Sandberg, was in London last week during which time she gave an interview with Desert Island Discs in which she reiterated that Facebook was not going to backdoor encryption, but that the companies would work on removing illegal content.

"The message itself is encrypted, but the metadata is not," Sandberg said. "If people move off those encrypted applications to other applications offshore, the government has less information, not more."

She later added: "If a video by a terrorist is uploaded to any of our platforms, we are able to fingerprint it for the others, so that they can't move from platform to platform."

Rudd's Silicon Valley trip is clearly an effort to grow those top-level connections, although how successful it will be and whether Rudd will get through the doors of organizations other than Google remains to be seen.

Further complicating matters, due to Brexit plans, the UK no longer holds much sway in Europe – which is pushing for Europe-wide new rules on internet companies and their services – so any discussions would likely apply to the UK only.

Despite President Trump's recent claim that a US‑UK trade deal was imminent and would be "beautiful," the reality is that a UK government minister – even the Home Secretary – carries little weight in California. ®

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