by Xinhua writers Jin Jing, Zhang Jiawei
LONDON, Jan. 11 (Xinhua) -- The Internet "cannot be a values-free area" and the government needs to closely collaborate with tech companies to counter online illegality and ensure cyber security, said Robert Hannigan, former director of Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
The Internet was a brilliant invention, but it "cannot be an area where illegality is allowed to simply exist in a way that it wouldn't be in the real world," said Hannigan, also a columnist for the Financial Times, who stepped down from Britain's intelligence agency GCHQ last January.
According to a survey of more than 3,000 professionals in Britain, Germany and the United States, 57 percent of firms in these countries have experienced at least one cyber attack in 2016 with an average cost of 102,000 U.S. dollars for large companies and 22,000 dollars for small ones.
The costs of cyber attacks are rising, and public awareness -- especially among small businesses -- is still falling short in this regard, said Hannigan, special advisor on cyber security for Hiscox, an underwriter at the Lloyd's of London insurance market.
Meanwhile, online illegal activities cost way beyond just money. Last year, Britain suffered five terrorist attacks which killed more than 30 people, with nine other attacks having been prevented, according to British domestic intelligence service MI5.
In a recent interview, British Security Minister Ben Wallace accused such tech firms as Facebook and Google of being "ruthless profiteers," blasting their inaction on combating online extremism with radicalized messages widely spread via their platforms.
"We know what radicalizes them and we know that a lot of material on the Internet is doing that job. So we have to act quickly" before it's impossible to get everything back, said Hannigan.
The former intelligence director called for the immediate removal of extreme materials and isolation of offending sites without waiting for legislation, courts or proposed fines, which will inevitably be protracted and ineffective.
Although it is impossible to completely wipe out such content, but if it is more difficult for people to access such content, particularly young men who are especially vulnerable to being radicalized, this would help prevent terrorism, said Hannigan.
Meanwhile, the former intelligence director warned against fake news and irresponsible use of social media, which are distorting the public understanding of complex issues.
"On the one hand we want free discussion and availability of material and freedom of expression, but at the same time there has to be some limits," he said, noting that rules for social media and cyberspace are still to be established and enforced.
A stake-holder coalition of multiple parties such as the government, tech companies and civil society should work together to agree on what is acceptable in cyberspace and impose limits of online material, he added.
The British government is considering an "extremist" tax on social media and tech giants to cover the rising cost for law enforcement agencies to police radicalized material in cyberspace, Wallace suggested.
Hannigan said he would prefer the tech companies act themselves as they are better at it and quicker with their technology. If they can't or won't, however, governments will have to act through fines, legislation, or taxation, he added.