Government effort to rein in tech firms on terror dubbed "lame"

Parliament building at night

The government called in tech titans to discuss encryption in the wake of the terror attack on Westminster last week but then failed to talk about the issue, with critics dubbing the meeting "lame".

Instead, reports suggest that home secretary Amber Rudd focused on taking down extreme material in her meeting with executives from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and others.

Following the attack, Rudd said it was "completely unacceptable" that authorities couldn't access ecrypted messages, such as those sent via WhatsApp. That led to concerns that the government was once again pushing for backdoors in encryption.

Amid such strong language, she pulled in tech giants for a chat, but the focus of the meeting appears to have been curbing extremist material online and "ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online", according to a report in the Guardian.

Following the meeting, Rudd said the discussion was "useful" and that "progress has been made".

"We focused on the issue of access to terrorist propaganda online and the very real and evolving threat it poses," she said. "In taking forward this work I'd like to see the industry to go further and faster in not only removing online terrorist content but stopping it going up in the first place. I'd also like to see more support for smaller and emerging platforms to do this as well, so they can no longer be seen as an alternative shop floor by those who want to do us harm."

She added: "My starting point is pretty straightforward. I don't think that people who want to do us harm should be able to use the internet or social media to do so. I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to stop this."

While inserting backdoors in encryption may have sparked a battle with Silicon Valley giants, they are keen to be seen to be doing more to help remove damaging content from their platforms, so the meeting was likely amicable.

"I said I wanted to see this tackled head-on and I welcome the commitment from the key players to set up a cross-industry forum that will help to do this," Rudd said.

The tech firms themselves promised to continue working together to tackle the issue, possibly setting up a forum to talk about it more. "Working against terrorism is not a competitive issue within the industry and we pledge to engage the wider ecosystem of companies that face these challenges," a joint statement from the firms said.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, suggested the meeting was a waste of time.

"This is all a bit lame," she said, according to a report in The Telegraph. "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."

She added: "Having meetings about meetings just isn't good enough when there is still illegal terrorist recruitment propaganda up online. They need to get on with taking it down, and to say what resources they will put into doing this."

The EU is also considering taking a tougher stance on tech firms, possibly introducing legislation around encryption rather than an industry forum.