November 28, 2013 | Peter Bradwell

Government touts backroom deals to block extremist websites

Why should we trust some backroom deal from a combination of civil servants, Internet businesses and law enforcement with decisions about what we are allowed look at and do online? The correct answer is we shouldn't.

david-cameron-cc-by-nc-sa-worldeconomicforumRumblings about a forthcoming announcement to block “extremism” and “terrorist” content began this summer. Then last month the Prime Minister made comments during Prime Minister's Questions about blocking extremism:

"We have had repeated meetings of the extremism task force—it met again yesterday—setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites."

Yesterday, in response to a question from Patrick Robinson of Yahoo! at a conference, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire confirmed that an announcement is "forthcoming". Amongst others, the Guardian are now also reporting on this.

The "Extremism Task Force", mentioned by the Prime Minister, was set up in the aftermath of the Woolwich murder and is due to report very soon. So one assumes this announcement will likely be related to that.

We don't know what this forthcoming announcement will be. We don't know what sort of content the Government want to see blocked, or why, and how much it extends beyond what already happens through the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit.

There has been no public discussion about this so far. As far as we understand, no freedom of expression groups have been involved. The Guardian suggest the Government want to follow the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) model, who supply Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with a list of child abuse material they then block.

But the Government's policy on extremism content can't just be that ISPs should block sites that have been classified as extreme by some secretive government body, without any court decision about a law being broken or any public, democratic discussion in Parliament about the process involved.

This should not be another drift towards vague, unaccountable and privatised Internet regulation. This sort of Internet regulation is about who decides what we - not just 'terrorists' - can look at and do online.

Once again we see that website blocking has become the go-to button for politicians to press when they need to be seen reacting strongly to the latest media outcry.

But website blocking is not an easy or effective option. Anyone who wants to look at blocked content will find a way to do so - it is fairly simple to get around any blocking for a start. It also, unhelpfully, adds an edginess to blocked material if those making or sharing it can say it is banned by the government. 

We also know that unrelated content gets caught by blocking systems. Extremist content is not easy to define. Moreover, as Big Brother Watch point out in their blog, law enforcement agencies can define words like extremism broadly enough to include groups like political activists or protestors who are not terrorists or seemingly breaking any laws. If law enforcement agencies are responsible for drawing up a list of sites to be blocked, it is not a huge stretch of the imagination to think that block lists would include material that is not illegal. By accident or abuse blocking powers are likely to lead to blocking lists featuring content that has little if anything to do with terrorism and national security.

More half baked policy making?

It looks like James Brokenshire and the Home Office are following a well trodden path with this approach. When it comes to the Internet the government seems to like voluntary arrangements in which they arm twist Internet service providers into doing what they want.

That spares the Government from having to deal with complicated issues like involving a court to prove a law has been broken, or a normal policy process that would involve public, democratic scrutiny of their ideas.

The IWF model for dealing with child abuse images is tolerated because their focus is such abhorrent and unequivocally illegal material. This model is not appropriate for less clearly defined content.

Maybe the Government will surprise us with their announcement. But we have seen that when it comes to Internet blocking the government has a tendency to prioritise making favourable headlines above a smart, effective policy fix. So fingers are crossed in hope rather than expectation.

Comments (5)

  1. William:
    Nov 28, 2013 at 01:53 PM

    > The IWF model for dealing with child abuse images is tolerated because their focus is such abhorrent and unequivocally illegal material. This model is not appropriate for less clearly defined content.

    Very well put. Good piece.

  2. Graham:
    Nov 28, 2013 at 04:00 PM

    > The IWF model for dealing with child abuse images is tolerated because their focus is such abhorrent and unequivocally illegal material.

    And if the IWF is re-purposed ("extended") to political censorship ("extremism") then it is likely to lose that toleration (by public and ISPs) altogether, ending up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Would this government really want to be known as the government that destroyed the successful process for blocking child abuse images?

  3. Frank Fisher:
    Nov 29, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    And don't forget that the IWF remit was *already* extended to include 'material likely to incite racial hatred' back in the mid 90s; that was one reason why (when at Index on Censorship) I advised against us joining the IWF's advisory board. The way that the IWF works wrt to providing IPs and the blocking implementation has *always* been wrong. The lack of oversight has always meant something else could be slipped in there - now it's simply going to be done openly, but still without independent oversight. Worse - IPSs and online publishers will take their cue from this, moving increasingly to pre-moderation of all contentious debate, censoring by default anything remotely challenging.

    We have been sliding down a slippery slope since 1997. We are now rocketing down it. The endpoint is not some slightly annoying country in which you read foolish stories of PC excesses in the Daily Mail and tut-tut - the endpoint is full-on totalitarianism with not a dissenting word permitted - and it is *inches* away.

  4. Don:
    Dec 01, 2013 at 12:50 PM

    until politicians are forced to use legislation instead of "agreements" then we have no recourse, bad laws can be legally challenged, bad agreements cant. the system is broken and unless that is fixed first we will be facing the same problems no matter who is in power. already the EU is calling for restrictions on "digital weapons" code is code and unless it is shared the public will find it harder to defend themselves online,

  5. Logo Design Bizz:
    Dec 11, 2013 at 02:49 PM

    This is brilliant. We appreciate that if pass a bill against terror sites!