Extremists and Tech Companies

19th October 2018

On October 8th 2018, The Times reported that Islamist groups have been raising funds through the third richest company in the world: Amazon. Now that that story has broken, it is time to consider how many other tech platforms are being used in this manner. The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that quite a few have fallen into this trap. Worse still, few have been paying attention to this worrying problem.

Over the course of the past few years, proper scrutiny has been directed at social media companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, whose platforms have been used to propagate both extremism and in some cases, to encourage  terrorism. However, the problem is not limited to social media companies.

Amazon is essentially a logistics company. They are the best in their field. Because their core business is sales, they have only rarely had to consider the manner in which their platform may be misused by extremist organisations. Those of you who have read The Times story will know that their troubles started when Amazon launched a well-intended initiative called “Amazon Smile” under which Amazon donates 0.5% of the net purchase price (excluding VAT, returns and shipping fees) of eligible purchases to the charitable organisation of the customer’s choice.

The only eligibility requirement appears to be that the organisation is a registered charity. Amazon does not conduct due diligence into the 168,000 and more charities that are registered in the UK. Nor do they presently have the in-house expertise to conduct such an exercise. Instead, they rely on the charitable status of a recipient institution, reasoning that were the charity to be problematic, the Charities Commission would take action. Organisations such as Amazon argue that it is not their role to decide which lawfully operating charities are appropriate recipients of their largesse, and which are not.

However, the Charities Commission is far from a perfect institution. It could certainly be better resourced, and given stronger powers of intervention. The failure of the Charities Commission to take action against a charity that is promoting extremism does not remove the overriding ethical duty of a business which is providing services to that institution. The refusal to act can have serious reputational consequences for such a business. Where a scandal ensues, businesses are likely to discover that reliance on the Charities Commission is a weak alibi.

The problem is not limited to Amazon. Platforms such as JustGiving have also fallen into this quagmire.

A simple search on the JustGiving platform shows that Hhugs, one of the charities that The Times investigation highlights, is on the list of charities to which online donations can be made via their platform. Hhugs is a charity whose website formerly identified it as the sister organisation of the Islamist advocacy group Cage. Readers will remember that in 2015 a Cage spokesman said that Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State murderer known as Jihadi John, had been a “beautiful young man”. The controversial preacher Shakeel Begg, who was declared by the High Court in 2016 to be a preacher who “espouses extremist Islamic positions”, is also linked to Hhugs. The High Court also ruled that Begg “recently promoted and encouraged religious violence by telling Muslims that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed”.

Tech platforms such as Amazon, JustGiving and others have three options:

  • Cancel the programmes such as Amazon Smile as they do not have the in-house expertise to determine which charities are morally acceptable
  • Conduct their own due diligence and play their part in ensuring that extremists cannot benefit from their platforms
  • Insist that it is not their duty to determine who can and who cannot use their platform and abdicate all responsibility to the Charities Commission and the Government.

Neither the first or third options are desirable. Rather, businesses which want to avoid criticism from customers and the public – and the resultant reputational damage – should invest in due diligence, which would permit them to continue to fund and provide services to charities, and to promote institutions which benefit society as a whole.

Disappointingly, at the time of writing, the charities that were the subject of The Times expose are still part of the Amazon Smile programme. Large companies move very slowly. I recall the same reticence to face up to their responsibilities from social media companies a few years ago, when concerns relating to misuse of their platforms by extremists. But I have confidence that the current inertia will be overcome. Just as social media companies eventually bit the bullet and did the right thing, so in time will other Tech companies.