Prevent strategy: ‘Internet filtering is essential’

The Home Office’s new Prevent strategy, aimed at countering terrorism and a refresh of the previous government’s strategy of the same name, was published this week. It contains some troubling suggestions about the need for widespread internet filtering. This includes suggested blocking of sites in public institutions like schools and libraries, but also the extension of filtering to include wider, national and potentially unaccountable filtering.

The Prevent strategy claims that ‘Internet filtering across the public estate is essential’. That would involve blocking access to information deemed unlawful or even ‘harmful’ from, for example libraries. But going further than the application of filtering in these institutions, the paper suggests that the Home Office wants to explore ‘the potential for violent and unlawful URL lists to be voluntarily incorporated into independent national blocking lists, including the list operated by the Internet Watch Foundation’.

These suggested additional remits also represent a further demonstration of widening expectations by government and others that website blocking – for example restricting access to certain sites deemed unlawful or unacceptable – is an easy fix for any number of social ills. Those expectations tend to disregard not only the issues of censorship, recourse, transparency, due process and accountability involved but also the harmful unintended technological consequences.

This demonstrates a desire to significantly extend the remit of the IWF well outside of its current role of taking down and blocking access to child abuse images. Where decisions begin to involve such contentious and vaguely defined, it would seem impossible to simply incorporate them ‘voluntarily’ whilst properly addressing the very significant due process, accountability and censorship issues.

It is worrying that this is symptomatic of a trend away from formal legal channels for establishing illegality of a site or content. Instead, there is an assumption that, in the words of the strategy, ‘close relationship with industry’ leads to material being removed voluntarily. There is nothing in the strategy about what a legitimate legal process might look like. Instead the implication is that cooperation between law enforcement and internet industry will lead to the right material being removed. It is exactly this sorty of failure to create a proper legal framework around blocking that led the UN’s Special Rapporteur to argue, in his report released last month, that website blocking would be a violation of rights to freedom of expression. 

Website blocking is a dangerously simple idea that creates the illusion of preventing harm whilst affecting the significant public interest issues of censorship and access to information.

The opening sentence of Chapter 10, in which this discussion sits, argues ‘evidence suggests that radicalisation tends to occur in places where terrorist ideologies, and those that promote them, go uncontested and are not exposed to free, open and balanced debate and challenge’. Some 15 pages later the strategy outlines it’s plans for very broadly defined filtering. It’s hard to see how that kind of suppression is the best way to expose terrorist ideologies through the light of free and open debate. Trying to ban it is far more likely to make the material more alluring to the young people who seek it.

We hope in developing the idea that the Home Office refines its approach to blocking. We’ll be doing all we can to point out the flaws in such ideas, and, alongside others, insisting government establishes legal process, clear limits and legal accountability around website blocking of all forms.