Web of conceit: Should GCHQ be so worried about Isis's online bragging?


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Robert Hannigan, the Director of GCHQ, has hit a nerve when he says that the world’s major technology firms have provided a ready-built command and control network for Isis and its ilk.

The internet was envisaged as a nirvana of free expression and unrestricted communications.

Originally, these were matters of Californian, sun-drenched principle; now they are an intrinsic part of the business model of many a corporate web giant. What the main players in the online world express as concerns for libertarianism are, in part at least, a front for commercial priorities; and that is troubling.

Big tech companies may see themselves, as Mr Hannigan puts it, as “neutral conduits of data”, but they are more than that. Perhaps they are the overseers of such conduits: but with oversight comes a degree of responsibility that cannot ignore wider social imperatives. There may still be a reluctance in Silicon Valley to face up to this truth but it ought to be unavoidable. Mr Hannigan’s analysis of the internet’s role as an aid to the promulgation of terrorism is incomplete, for it does not recognise how the world wide web can also be a force for good. While it is true that the web and its many tools have helped extremists to communicate, recruit and to terrorise, so they have enabled the rest of the world to express disgust, to call for restraint, and to stand up for the very liberal values on which the internet was founded.

Isis may have laid bare the vulnerability of online freedoms; but the cowardice and weakness of its own ideology has been exposed by the unending scrutiny of the web.

GCHQ’s job is to keep us safe. Few would argue that surveillance of potential terrorists’ online behaviour is beyond the pale. But if there really are legitimate limits to the freedom afforded to our communications by the internet, there must also be clear boundaries for the roving eyes of the security services.