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UK may use taxes to get tech giants to do more to fight extremism, minister says

  • Ben Wallace accused tech firms of being happy to sell people's data but not to give it to the government
  • "If they continue to be less than co-operative, we should look at things like tax as a way of incentivizing them or compensating for their inaction," Wallace told the Sunday Times newspaper in an interview
Facebook, Google and Amazon apps displayed on a smartphone.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Facebook, Google and Amazon apps displayed on a smartphone.

Britain may impose new taxes on tech giants like Google and Facebook unless they do more to combat online extremism by taking down material aimed at radicalizing people or helping them to prepare attacks, the country's security minister said.

Ben Wallace accused tech firms of being happy to sell people's data but not to give it to the government which was being forced to spend vast sums on de-radicalization programs, surveillance and other counter-terrorism measures.

"If they continue to be less than co-operative, we should look at things like tax as a way of incentivizing them or compensating for their inaction," Wallace told the Sunday Times newspaper in an interview.

He accused the tech giants of putting private profit before public safety.

"We should stop pretending that because they sit on beanbags in T-shirts they are not ruthless profiteers," he said. "They will ruthlessly sell our details to loans and soft-porn companies but not give it to our democratically elected government."

Britain suffered a series of attacks by Islamic extremists between March and June this year that killed a total of 36 people.

Two involved vehicles ramming people on bridges in London, followed by attackers stabbing people. The deadliest, a bombing at a concert in the northern city of Manchester, killed 22 people.

Following the second bridge attack, Prime Minister Theresa May proposed beefing up regulations on cyberspace, and weeks later interior minister Amber Rudd travelled to California to ask Silicon Valley to step up efforts against extremism.

The Sunday Times quoted Wallace as saying that reliance on the internet made Britain vulnerable to terrorists and rogue states.

"That's what keeps me awake at night. We are more vulnerable than at any point in the last 100 years," he said.

Tech companies have made life too easy for attackers by refusing to take down extremist material and bomb-making guides, the minister said. Encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp were also a major problem, he said.

"I have to have more human surveillance. It's costing hundreds of millions of pounds," Wallace said.

"Because content is not being taken down as quickly as they could do, we're having to de-radicalize people who have been radicalized. That's costing millions. They can't get away with that and we should look at all the options, including tax."

Wallace's quotes did not give further details on tax plans. The Sunday Times reported that any demand would take the form of a windfall tax similar to that imposed on privatized utilities by former Prime Minister Tony Blair's government in 1997.