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Latest Attack Renews Debate Over Extremists' Use of Social Media

British Prime Minister Theresa May accused "the internet and the big companies" of giving hate speech "the safe space it needs to breed."
IMAGE: Social media logos
NBC News

LONDON — The debate is raging in the United Kingdom over how best to balance public safety, privacy and free speech after the third major terrorist attack in as many months.

Ahead of the country's election this week, Prime Minister Theresa May pointed her finger at U.S. tech companies, accusing them of not having done enough to weed out extremists in cyberspace.

"There is, to be frank, too much tolerance of extremism in our country," she said after seven people died and nearly 50 others were injured in an attack Saturday night in the heart of the British capital.

"We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,"May said. "Yet that is precisely what the internet and the big companies that provide internet-based service provide."

Mohammad Yazdani Misbahi, an imam with the London Fatwa Council, which offers Muslims legal advice and counseling in accordance with Islamic law, agreed.

"The present-day terrorists don't find radicalizations from the mosques anymore," he said. "They find them on the social medias. Imams don't have a control on that. Google does."

But Google, Twitter and Facebook say they've been cracking down on jihadist material for years.

In a written statement, Google told NBC News that company leaders "share the government's commitment to ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online."

Twitter said that in the second half of 2016, it suspended more than 376,000 accounts for violations related to the promotion of terrorism.

Facebook responded: "We work aggressively to remove terrorist content from our platform as soon as we become aware of it."

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that while Silicon Valley has a responsibility, the blame ultimately lies with the terrorists.

NBC News

"If you turn around and just blame that message exclusively on the internet, we're making an enormous mistake," Kerry said. "And if we reach too far without being sensitive to our own values, we give them an extraordinary victory."

Digital privacy groups argue that giving up freedom online is dangerous for the rest of the public.

"It puts us in the unfortunate position of having the government on the same side as the terrorists," said Maria Farrell, an internet policy development specialist with the Open Rights Group, a British-based nonprofit. "We're basically burning the village to save the village."

Some analysts say that while social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have been cooperative, many jihadists are moving toward encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) and Telegram.

Those concerns have been at the forefront since before at least 129 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Paris in November. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California — who represents Silicon Valley — had harsh words for tech companies that "create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way."