IQ: Facebook a scapegoat for Lee Rigby murder

British state conveniently lays blame at door of tech giant as such firms move to protect users’ privacy

Lee Rigby’s killers Michael Adebolajo  and Michael Adebowale. Five months before the murder, Adebowale discussed killing a soldier in a Facebook conversation with an Islamist militant. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

Lee Rigby’s killers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. Five months before the murder, Adebowale discussed killing a soldier in a Facebook conversation with an Islamist militant. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

 

“Blood on their hands”, screamed the headline in the Sun on Wednesday, as the tabloid reported the family of murdered British soldier Lee Rigby said “Facebook had ‘blood on their hands’ – after it emerged the US web giant could have foiled the soldier’s killers.”

While it is unrealistic to expect the Sun to offer a nuanced front-page take on a British government report into Rigby’s killing, as an exercise in state-orchestrated propaganda the headline could hardly be bettered. And the scapegoating of Facebook this week really ought to be seen as exactly that.

Rigby’s brutal murder by two deranged fanatics, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, on a suburban London street in May 2013 was a shocking act of violence, prompting the commissioning of a report by the House of Common’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

Weighing in at 191 pages and heavily redacted, the report, published this week, did acknowledge that extensive mistakes had been made by the British security agencies – repeated failure to identify the risk posed by the killers and missed opportunities to apprehend Adebolajo.

Conveniently, the report found “we do not consider that any of the agencies’ errors, when taken individually, were significant enough to have affected the outcome”.

Instead, the report’s lead author, Conservative Party grandee Malcolm Rifkind, chose to single out Facebook for particular culpability in Rigby’s death. Five months before the murder, Adebowale discussed killing a soldier in a Facebook conversation with an Islamist militant.

“Adebowale’s expressed intention to murder a soldier was highly significant,” the report states. “This is the single issue which – had it been known at the time – might have enabled MI5 to prevent the attack.”

This argument deserves to be met with extreme scepticism. Given the litany of police and security service mishaps and gaffes outlined in the report, it’s hard to believe everything would suddenly have clicked into gear had Facebook alerted authorities to the message.

Also impossible to ignore is that the report functioned as the culmination of months of efforts by David Cameron’s Conservative-led government to pressure technology companies into handing over more information.

In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations about government surveillance, the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook are taking measures to protect their users’ privacy, frustrating security agencies.

Cameron’s response to the report, delivered classic fear-mongering about the firms: “Their networks are being used to plot murder and mayhem. It is their social responsibility to act on this.”

Undoubtedly, there is a responsibility on technology companies to ensure their networks don’t foster criminal activity. To that end, they do co-operate with intelligence agencies.

But the report seems to suggest that the firms must go further, essentially acting as an auxiliary intelligence agency, policing their users for thought crimes.

By painting technology companies as terrorist enablers, the UK government is shamelessly trying to turn public opinion against them in an effort to expand its surveillance capabilities.

Scapegoating foreign technology companies for the intelligence failures of British security agencies might make good politics in Whitehall, but it’s a reprehensible exploitation of Rigby’s death.

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