DCMS call summit on dealing with extreme or illegal content online

This morning comes news that Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has summoned internet companies to a summit on how they deal with illegal and extreme content online. This morning we will be writing to the Minister to make sure that Open Rights Group and representatives of civil society are present.

[Update: You can read a joint letter, written with Index on Censorship, English PEN and Big Brother Watch, on our correspondence page.]

In one sense this is not particularly surprising – politicians are reacting to the heated coverage in the media of exposure to various types of illegal or extreme content online over the past two weeks, which stemmed largely from the two tragic cases of Lee Rigby and April Jones.

It is understandable that the Minister wants to see what can be done to deal with illegal content online. But powers to make decisions about what people are allowed to see and do on the Internet are significant and must be treated with great care. Efforts to ensure a ‘safer’ online environment can inadvertently lead to overreaching or unaccountable powers or practices that block far too much content, for example. There are particularly serious problems when governments ask or expect companies to police content on their platforms, for example through industry practices.

For example, in our research into mobile networks’ Internet filtering we found routine over blocking, including of shops, political blogs and community sites. Similarly, in Australia last month, it emerged that 1,200 websites were accidentally blocked when a government agency tried to take down two sites allegedly involved with fraud. [Update: it emerges that in fact 250,000 websites were accidentally blocked, on top of the already reported 1,200 – thanks to Pete on Twitter for pointing this out!]

We will post our letter, and any response, on the blog as soon as possible.