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Why Theresa May’s call to arms on terrorism via social media could be blocked by reality

Prime Minister Theresa May has called for international agreements to regulate the internet, after a spate of terrorist attacks in Britain. This is long overdue, and May is right to push the world on this. But whatever form such agreements may take, they will be insufficient to address the spread of cyberterrorism.

The fundamental problem is that cyberterrorists operate anonymously and in a borderless world. For laws to work, those they seek to apprehend must first be identified, but the perpetrators of cyberterrorism are as adept at hiding behind the internet as their cybercriminal counterparts.

Individuals, groups or governments responsible for cybercrime and cyberterrorism are rarely apprehended. Just as quickly as a method of identifying them is deployed, the parties adapt, change identity, adopt new modus operandi, and continue as before.

May recognises the importance of addressing the role of social media in how cyberterrorists communicate. Social media companies have also now come to realise this and many are devoting greater resources to combating it. But among the challenges they face is the sheer volume of messages and videos generated – hundreds of millions each day. There are no algorithms currently available that can identify every potential terrorist post, and social media firms are often reliant on users to report problem messaging. But by the time they are able to respond, the messages have been disseminated and consumed.

Even if such algorithms did exist, there is no realistic way for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to act on all of them in a timely and effective manner. And even if they could, cyberterrorists change IP addresses, locations, identities and personas with such regularity, and so quickly, that they can basically act at will.

There are good reasons why no meaningful laws exist to govern the internet. If there were an easy way to do this, such laws would perhaps have been implemented years ago. Cyberspace is a fast-moving, ever-changing landscape that caters to criminality, and illegal and outrageous behaviour.

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