Theresa May has promised to make Britain the world’s internet policeman and served notice that technology giants will be forced to give their customers more power over their own data.
The prime minister said that Britain “should be a leader” in regulating the internet as she outlined new details of a crackdown on how companies hold and exploit personal data. “We want the UK to be . . . the best place for a digital business to be set up and to grow but also the safest and most secure place for people to be online,” she said in an interview with The Times.
Last week’s hack attack on the NHS deepened fears of the disruptive power of technology and yesterday a defiant Julian Assange threatened to step up leaks of intelligence material. The 45-year-old Wikileaks founder signalled that he would stay in the Ecuadorean embassy in London after Swedish authorities dropped a seven-year rape investigation.
Speaking from the balcony of the embassy, which he has not left since he fled bail in 2012, he said: “The threats towards me as a publisher and my staff will not be tolerated. Our publications are proceeding at speed and that speed in relation to the CIA is accelerating.”
Last night Wikileaks dumped the latest documents in its cache exposing the hacking tools used by the CIA. The Metropolitan Police said that it would arrest Mr Assange over his failure to surrender bail if he left the embassy.
His renewed threats will be seized on by those pushing for more aggressive government action online. Laws to make publishers such as Google and Facebook do more to secure information and to delete, on demand, data relating to those under 18, will be included in the first Queen’s Speech of a new Tory government, along with measures to fine them if they fail to comply.
The commitments come after The Times revealed that social media companies including Facebook and YouTube, owned by Google, continued to host images or videos of child abuse and terrorism even after they were alerted to the content.
The Conservatives’ manifesto said that questions over who owns personal data and how it should be treated would be decided by a data-use and ethics commission, and that Britain would push to bring US technology companies under the same kind of international regulation applied to banks.
The new body would focus on who owns personal data and what people should expect in return when they consent to share it. That includes the extent of organisations’ transparency and what rights people should have to request that their data is deleted.
The commission would also look at the rules surrounding technology that reaches decisions based on personal data using “opaque” algorithms. These decisions lie at the heart of the business models of companies such as Google and Facebook, which analyse data based on users’ online behaviour to sell targeted advertising. In another reference to the technology and publishing giants, the commission will examine “the ethical and competition implications of mass agglomeration into commercial monopolies”.
The Tories said that personal data, which is collected in vast quantities by these companies, had acquired the characteristics of physical property as it could be bought, sold, mined for insights and stolen. They signalled that they did not believe people had confidence that their data was handled “properly”.
The big US tech companies are unregulated and privacy campaigners complain about their intrusive nature. This week Britain’s information commissioner began an investigation into how political parties use information about people to focus their campaigns.
Mrs May, who was home secretary for six years, told The Times that her record in forcing technology companies to act against child sex abuse imagery and extremist content made her optimistic that they would co-operate with the drive for regulation.
She said: “I think there is more to do on child security and safety online but I think we showed that it can be done. It was the home secretary . . . talking to the companies on the national security side and that aspect of it. So I think there is a real opportunity for the UK to be a leader in this.”
Experts welcomed the comments but were sceptical about what could be achieved. Tony Jaffa, a partner at Foot Anstey solicitors, said: “It’s a very laudable aim for Britain to lead the world in policing these companies but I’m not sure how achievable it is. It’s obvious that US tech companies are dominant, and the Americans have a conception of freedom of expression that’s quite different to ours, coming from their ideas about the first amendment.
“These companies claim they’re tech companies and not publishers while we on this side of the Atlantic believe that’s exactly what they are. It’s not only the companies that don’t accept those responsibilities but US lawmakers too.”
Mark Skilton, professor of practice at Warwick University, said: “The idea of an expert data-use and ethics commission is a good one, given the monopolisation of yours and my data by Google, Facebook and others for advertising and personal services . . . Whether it can prevent abuses is another matter but the step towards more institutional focus is a good one. It cannot be left to just a few American tech companies to set the data agenda on behalf of other nations.”