Leading tech firms have promised to work closely with the government to remove extremist material from the internet and social media following a meeting with the home secretary, Amber Rudd.
However, while senior executives from Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft pledged to “to tackle this vital issue”, a joint statement from the companies after the meeting made no mention of dealing with encrypted messages.
Rudd called the meeting after it emerged that Khalid Masood had used WhatsApp, which encrypts messages sent through it, shortly before carrying out the attack in Westminster that left five people dead, including himself.
Rudd said at the weekend that messaging services with end-to-end encryption should not “provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other”, prompting criticism that she did not understand the technical and logistical hurdles needed to end this.
The joint message from the tech firms, which met Rudd on Thursday afternoon, focused on curbing extremist material and “ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online”.
In her own statement, Rudd said this had been the focus of the meeting but insisted she planned to return to the issue of encryption “through further, separate discussions”.
“I am clear that government and industry need to work more closely together on this issue so that law enforcement and the intelligence agencies can get access to the data they need to keep us safe,” she said.
The joint statement was signed by Hugh Milward of Microsoft, Nick Pickles from Twitter, Richard Allan from Facebook – the parent company of WhatsApp – and Google’s Nicklas Lundblad. It thanked Rudd for letting them “share with you details of the progress already made in this area and to hear how the UK government is developing its approach in both the online and offline space”.
It added: “Our companies are committed to making our platforms a hostile space for those who seek to do harm and we have been working on this issue for several years.”
The firms would “look at all options for structuring a forum to accelerate and strengthen this work, ranging from existing international, multilateral organisations, developing dedicated non-governmental organisations, to enhancing and broadening the current informal collaboration sessions that companies already conduct”.
It set out three main methods for progress: developing better tools to automatically identify and remove terrorist propaganda; helping smaller tech companies learn from others about such methods, and supporting ways to “promote alternative and counter-narratives”.
Rudd said the meeting had been useful and focused on “the issue of access to terrorist propaganda online and the very real and evolving threat it poses. I said I wanted to see this tackled head-on and I welcome the commitment from the key players to set up a cross-industry forum that will help to do this.
“In taking forward this work I’d like to see the industry to go further and faster in not only removing online terrorist content but stopping it going up in the first place.
“I’d also like to see more support for smaller and emerging platforms to do this as well, so they can no longer be seen as an alternative shop floor by those who want to do us harm.”
Executives from Apple were not at the meeting, reportedly because it did not deal with the issue of encryption.
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said the outcome of the meeting was “a bit lame”.
“All the government and social media companies appear to have agreed is to discuss options for a possible forum in order to have more discussions,” the Labour MP said.
“Having meetings about meetings just isn’t good enough when there is still illegal terrorist recruitment propaganda up online. They need to get on with taking it down, and to say what resources they will put into doing this.”
She said the committee would continue to pursue the issue.. “Social media and the internet can be a fantastic force for immense good, but they also need to get their act together and stop the dangerous illegal poison spreading online.”
Rudd has faced scepticism over her demands on encryption, with industry analysts saying it is also routinely used for legitimate web tasks, such as shopping and banking, which could be compromised if gaps were introduced. But the home secretary has received support from the police.
The acting head of Scotland Yard, Craig Mackey, said the Westminster attack was a wake-up call for technology companies over such issues.