Our response to the London and Manchester Attacks

As Londoners, we are relieved that we do not know anyone who has been directly affected. It is also genuinely shocking, as it was for some of us during the 2005 bombings, to have personal connections with the places involved in brutal terrorist killings. It is a reminder of the personal trauma that is also being felt by our friends and colleagues in Manchester. Many of us feel very exposed in the face of terrorism and violence.

As individuals, it is also natural to ask whether our own views can withstand this kind of onslaught. Is it right to resist or question measures that the government wishes to pursue, which it claims could improve security, or could at least reassure people that everything possible is being done. Is it selfish, or unrealistic, to argue against potential protections when people are seeking to ensure that, as Theresa May put it, “enough is enough”?

However, many people in London and Manchester will not wish these events to be exploited and used to usher in policies that are ill-thought out, illiberal or otherwise seek to exploit the situation. This is not a denial of the vulnerability that we feel, but a desire to ensure that terrorism does not win. These attacks so often occur in cities with very liberal and open outlooks, where there is little or no expectation of political violence, and toleration is a normal way of being.

London and Manchester are both cities with big creative and tech sectors, with many people very aware of what the Internet does, its benefits and also the dangers of attempts to control, censor and surveil. If the government uses these events to pursue policies that are ineffective, meaningless or dangerous, then many of those who feel a personal investment in seeing our communities protected, may quickly feel that these events are being exploited rather than dealt with maturely.

Calls for an end to tolerance of extremism are perhaps even more ill-judged. It is hard to imagine that the public sector has been tolerating extremism, except in relatively isolated examples. These statements could easily lead to over-reactions and quite divisive policy. For instance, the controversial Prevent programme, backed up by legislative anti-extremist quasi-policing duties across many parts of the public sector, could ramp up, leading to serious misjudgements.

It seems particularly harsh to accuse Muslim communities of tolerating extremist views without also recognising that the there are claims that the Manchester attacker had been reported as potentially dangerous by members of his community, and without articulating that extremists wish to create divisions between us. Whatever the changes that may be needed, it would also be wise to recognise that the government too may have had its failings.

We will be looking very carefully at her proposals for online censorship and attempts to limit the security of ordinary users of Internet services. To be clear, we are not saying that there are no measures that could ever be taken. There are already, quite rightly, laws about what is illegal and duties on companies to act when they are instructed. They also do a great deal well beyond their legal duties, because they do not want any association with any kind of criminality.

However, what we have heard so far from the government does not give us confidence that their proposals will necessary, proportionate, and ensure legal accountability. This is what the Conservative manifesto has to say on page 79:

We will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm. We will make clear the responsibility of platforms to enable the reporting of inappropriate, bullying, harmful or illegal content, with take-down on a comply-or-explain basis.
We will continue to push the internet companies to deliver on their commitments to develop technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda, to help smaller companies build their capabilities and to provide support for civil society organisations to promote alternative and counter-narratives.
… In addition, we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability. (ORG wiki)

We—and we hope you—will want to know: will the proposals work? Will they create new risks or adverse effects? Who will hold the police or companies to account for their decisions, and how? So far, what we have heard does not give us much confidence that we will receive satisfactory answers.

Theresa May’s speech had the feel of electioneering rather than a common-sense, values and evidence based approach. That is simply not being sufficiently serious and respectful about what has happened.