British prime minister slams Facebook and pals for votes

Nothing new in speech but then that wasn't the point

British prime minister Theresa May used Facebook, Google and social media companies as a vote-winning punch bag on Friday, slamming them for not doing enough to limit extremist content online.

In a speech that was widely reported 24 hours before she gave it, thanks to pre-briefings from her office, May told the G7 leaders meeting in Italy that terrorists' hateful ideology was "moving from the battlefield to the internet" and that while the UK was working with social media companies to "halt the spread of extremist material and hateful propaganda," the companies could do more and had a social responsibility to "step up their efforts."

The speech was front page news on Friday morning, although the reality is that May said nothing new and announced nothing that European leaders haven't already said repeatedly and already started writing legislation for.

"Today I called on leaders to do more," she said vaguely, adding, "we agreed a range of steps the G7 could take." Warming to this woolly warbling, she also revealed that "ministers will meet soon" on the issue.

The only details she did mention have stemmed from and been directly proposed by the companies themselves.

"We want companies to develop tools to identify and remove this harmful material automatically," she said, basically outlining exactly what they do now (although inadequately). "And in particular report this vile content to the authorities and block the users who spread it." Which, again, is exactly what the social media companies do already.

And her future plans? "The G7 will put its weight behind the creation of an international industry-led forum where new technologies and tools can be developed and shared to deny terrorists their pernicious voice online."


Which is precisely what those companies proposed to the UK government when they met back in March – an obvious policy punt in the long grass that the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Yvette Cooper called "a bit lame."

"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," Cooper complained. "Having meetings about meetings just isn't good enough."

It is worth noting as well that Theresa May made no mention of the efforts underway in Europe by politicians that may actually have an impact – namely the introduction of legislation that would fine Facebook and pals if they fail to remove illegal content within a specific timeframe.

So why then did we have May's non-speech plastered all over the news? The simple answer is, of course, the general election.

Having called a snap election on June 8 in an effort to push her position for a hard exit from the European Union, May is in full campaign mode.

Following the atrocity in Manchester on Monday night in which 22 people died in a suicide bombing, both parties agreed to suspend campaigning until Friday. And on Friday, both May and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave speeches about terrorism in an effort to differentiate themselves to voters, while at the same time being careful not to be seen to be using the attack for political gain.

Leaky ship

The text of Corbyn's speech leaked ahead of time on Thursday. In it he placed part of the blame for terrorist attacks on Britain's foreign policy – a true, if difficult-to-digest, statement at a time of national mourning.

May's plan was to come across as a strong leader tackling the extremist problem, but since the threat cannot be easily pinned on a country or individual, she decided that beating up big tech companies was the best way to go.

But following Corbyn's speech, May switched tack and gave a political speech at the G7, repeatedly referencing and criticizing Corbyn and misrepresenting his speech. "Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault and he's chosen to do that just a few days after one of the worst atrocities we have experienced in the United Kingdom," she railed.

"I want to make it clear: there can never ever be an excuse for terrorism ... The choice people face at the general election is stark – me, working to protect our security, or Jeremy Corbyn, who frankly isn't up to the job."

The other G7 leaders were no doubt bemused at having to sit through a national political speech – probably more so when May felt obliged to get back to the lines criticizing Facebook and friends that she had promised she would say; the details of which the other leaders had already read in their morning papers. ®

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