UK threatens tax on 'ruthless profiteer' social media giants

Security Minister Ben Wallace says tech companies are failing to curb extremist material

Social media companies may soon face steep taxes due to their alleged failure to curb the amount of extremist content appearing on their sites if new considerations by the UK government become a reality.

Security Minister Ben Wallace described tech companies such as Facebook and Google as "ruthless profiteers" in an interview with the Sunday Times, adding that they had done little to support government initiatives or law enforcement.

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The comments follow government proposals released last October which stated that social media companies should sign up to a code of practice in an attempt to regulate how content is policed.

"Because of encryption and because of radicalisation, the cost... is heaped on law enforcement agencies," said Wallace. "I have to have more human surveillance. It's costing hundreds of millions of pounds. If they continue to be less than co-operative, we should look at things like tax as a way of incentivising them or compensating for their inaction."

He argued that because it takes so long for content to be flagged and removed, the government is being forced to spend "millions" on de-radicalisation processes rather than preventative measures.

While Wallace didn't refer to any companies, in particular those such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Google have all faced criticisms in the past for failing to police the content hosted on their sites.

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In June Facebook announced it would be launching the Online Civil Courage Initiative that would help to train non-governmental organisations to help them identify extremist content, and provide a dedicated helpdesk for those wishing to contact Facebook directly. However, companies need to be doing more to support government departments directly, according to Wallace. 

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

Although the idea is clearly in its infancy, a suggestion raised during the interview was the potential for a "windfall tax", which could be used to generate quick cash much in the same way as the Labour taxes on utility and rail companies under Tony Blair.

Wallace also used the opportunity to reiterate the government's opposition to robust encryption methods employed by technology companies, initially raised by Amber Rudd last year. The claim is that companies such as WhatsApp have a responsibility to monitor content, something that is impossible with end-to-end encryption.

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