UK government officials are targeting online service providers after terrorist Khalid Masood killed four people and injured more than two dozen in an attack in Westminster last week. In an article published on the Telegraph Sunday morning, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd called on Google, Twitter, and Facebook to take action on extremist content. She also identified Telegram, Justpaste.it, and WordPress.com as smaller platforms through which terrorist activity is spreading.
“There should be no place for terrorists to hide,” Rudd told Andrew Marr in an interview over the weekend. “We need to make sure organizations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.”
Last week’s attack in London also seems to have reignited the UK government’s war on encryption, as Rudd said that the security agencies’ inability to crack encrypted messages during an investigation is “completely unacceptable.” Masood allegedly used WhatsApp to communicate shortly before the attack.
The Home Secretary has summoned representatives from a list of online service providers, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, and smaller companies, to a meeting this week to discuss combatting terrorist abuse of these platforms. Automattic would not confirm whether the company has been summoned but it seems likely given that WordPress.com was one of the platforms Rudd highlighted over the weekend.
The Telegraph article strongly linked WordPress.com to terrorism, citing several claims from the Counter Extremism Project that the Washington Post published earlier this month:
But most such sites are publicly available and used to spread content. According to US think tank the Counter Extremism Project, WordPress.com sites have played host to beheading videos, firing squads, and a video of a man being shot in the head, emblazoned with the words ‘This In the Enemy Of Allah.’
Historically, WordPress.com has been a strong supporter of free speech but posting terrorist propaganda is a violation of its terms of service. The site has a dedicated page outlining the platform’s stance on terrorist activity:
While our service is designed to enable users to freely express their ideas and opinions, however controversial, safety is important to us. As such, we don’t allow websites of known terrorist groups or genuine calls for violence against individuals or groups on WordPress.com.
WordPress.com users can report sites they find to be suspicious but the page also emphasizes the platform’s commitment to free speech:
Please note that the team behind WordPress.com strongly believes in freedom of speech. WordPress.com has a vast audience spread across many cultures, countries and backgrounds with varying values and our service is designed to let internet users freely express any ideas and opinions without us censoring or endorsing them.
We take all reports seriously, but we won’t remove sites just because they are offensive.
WordPress.com also denies use to individuals, groups, or entities on the Specially Designated Nationals list, maintained by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
It’s not yet clear what Home Secretary Rudd is calling for in summoning global tech company representatives to a meeting, but her comments on the Andrew Marr show indicate the government may request closer monitoring.
“What I’m saying is the best people – who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff even being put up, not just taking it down, but stopping it being put up in the first place – are going to be them,” Rudd said. She also said she is in conversations with the U.S. government to help get all of these companies around the table to agree to stop this kind of content from being published in the first place.
Automattic would not provide a comment at this time regarding its position on the UK government attempting to curb online extremism by targeting online services. However, the company has a long history of actively pushing back against requests that violate users’ freedom of speech. In 2010, Automattic demonstrated its support for freedom of speech by raising awareness about the First Amendment. Automattic’s General Counsel Paul Sieminski wrote about the company’s commitment to strike back against censorship in 2013 after taking to the courts to stand with users against DMCA abuse. In 2014, when tech companies all over the world joined forces to protest NSA surveillance, Automattic was among them.
If Rudd’s call for tech companies to take “a more proactive role” in tackling terrorist abuse ultimately means introducing monitoring that violates users’ privacy and gives government more access, she will be hard-pressed to get cooperation. American companies like Automattic and Apple have already demonstrated they are willing to go to court to protect users’ freedoms and privacy.
— Nadine Dorries (@NadineDorries) March 27, 2017
The anti-encryption rhetoric surrounding this issue seems manufactured to allow UK government officials to capitalize on a public tragedy in order to push a political agenda. Rudd is unlikely to find many companies in the tech industry that are eager to hand over users’ freedoms and private communications, but hopefully the summit will serve to educate government officials on why it’s dangerous to legislate backdoors into consumer products.