Hostile states such as China pose a greater threat to Britain than profit-driven big tech firms through their exploitation of the internet to secure geopolitical ambitions, the head of Britain’s intelligence and cyber security agency said on Wednesday.
Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ, said that China was harnessing its technological expertise to its traditional economic and political diplomacy to promote its world view while western democracies were struggling with their own big ideas on the future of the web.
He said that tech companies such as Facebook and Google had to be held more accountable for harmful content on their platforms but told an online seminar: “I have to say it’s the hostile state end of it that worries me more.”
Mr Fleming has previously spoken of China as an "intelligence adversary" and accused unidentified hostile states, in a veiled reference to Beijing, being involved in snooping on Covid-19 vaccination development programmes. Other British intelligence chiefs have spoken of China being the UK's biggest long-term security challenge.
Mr Fleming’s comments come after a turbulent week for Facebook after a whistle-blower came forward to claim that the company prioritised profit over the safety of its users. The company also suffered major technical difficulties with Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram going down, sending its stock tumbling 5 per cent.
Speaking at the event organised by the Chatham House think tank, Mr Fleming said that rival states were tussling to promote their vision of how the internet would operate in the future with an explosion of new users expected from rural India, China and Africa in the coming years.
Experts described how conflicting agendas are changing the nature of the “splinternet” and seeking to shape how it runs in the future. Corporations are at the forefront of seeking control of the internet’s machinery in the US while Europe has set greater store on personal data protection. In China, the state seeks to control all online activity for the greater national good.
Mr Fleming said the UK and other like-minded states should start by tackling harmful content and behaviour on the worldwide web that would not be accepted in the real world and to probe the “responsibilities of those marshalling all of this data”.
“Yes, it’s not fair to put all of the onus on to Facebook or Google, but it’s certainly fair to expect more from them in the debate about how it is technologically possible to regulate them in different ways, to hold them to account in different ways,” he said.
He cited the UK’s proposed Online Safety Bill, the most ambitious legislation of its kind anywhere in the world, which aims to regulate companies such as Facebook and Twitter and impose fines if they breach the duty of care to their users.