U.K. Home Affairs Committee Encourages Internet Service Providers to Censor Extremist Websites


MPs urge ISPs to tackle extremist websites (AFP):

Internet service providers should clamp down on websites used by violent extremists, both Islamists and increasingly the far right, British lawmakers said in a report Monday.

The Internet is a more significant vehicle for promoting radicalism than prisons, universities or places of worship, and is involved in almost all cases of extremism, parliament’s home affairs committee said.

Law enforcement agencies can already order illegal material to be removed from the Internet, but “service providers themselves should be more active in monitoring the material they host,” the report said.

The MPs recommended that the government work with Internet service providers (ISPs) to develop a code of practice on removing extremist material, but acknowledged international co-operation would also be needed.

During the committee’s investigations, it heard complaints from ISPs that it would be “impractical” for them to actively monitor material, citing the sheer volume of online content and implications for freedom of expression.

But security expert Peter Neumann, of King’s College London, told the MPs that political pressure could at least force big Internet companies to do more.

“This is not about freedom of speech. All these websites, whether it is YouTube or Facebook, have their own rules… They are very effective in removing sexual content or copyright content,” he said.

“Why can they not be equally effective at removing, for example, extremist Islamist or extremist right-wing content?”

Home Affairs Committee – Nineteenth Report – Roots of Violent Radicalisation (parliament.uk):

3.  Where does radicalisation take place? – The internet

33. Many of our witnesses cited the internet as the main forum for radicalisation. Sir Norman Bettison, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead for Prevent, told us that “the internet does seem to feature in most, if not all, of the routes of radicalisation”. It was regarded as particularly dangerous as it was now one of the few unregulated spaces where radicalisation is able to take place. According to the Home Office, the internet “plays a role in terms of sustaining and reinforcing terrorist ideological messages and enabling individuals to find and communicate with like-minded individuals and groups”. This seemed to be contradicted by more recent Home Office-commissioned research, which concluded that the internet “does not appear to play a significant role in Al Qa’ida-influenced radicalisation”. Even those witnesses who attributed a significant role to the internet tended to support that report’s conclusion that some element of face-to-face contact was generally essential to radicalisation taking place, including with regards to the extreme far right, but by definition this does not deal with the issue of self radicalisation which by its very nature takes place in isolation and concerns have been expressed about the impact of ‘Sheikh Google’ on individuals who may be vulnerable, but have not been identified as starting on a journey of self radicalisation.

4.  The Prevent Strategy – The Internet

53. The Home Office launched a Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit in 2010 to investigate internet-based content which might be illegal under UK law and take appropriate action against it, although Sir Norman Bettison described it as “a pebble thrown into the World Wide Web ocean”. It had received 2,025 referrals thus far, about 10% of which led to websites or web pages being taken down. Sir Norman believed that the referral site needed greater publicity which would in turn require greater capacity: at the time of our inquiry it consisted of around a dozen officers. Charles Farr told us:

Every internet service provider (ISP) has acceptable behaviour codes for use on their systems. So having that conversation, even where the website is operating in a broadly legal space, is not unusual for them. Governments all around the world have those conversations with ISPs every day, and the public will very often make their own representations to ISPs about particularly unacceptable content that may still be legal on websites around the world.

He later clarified that Governments would only make representations if websites were breaching the law.

54. Under the Terrorism Act 2006, if a law enforcement agency approached a hosting provider in respect of the Act’s provisions regarding liability for hosting terrorist content, they would be compelled to take it down and if an internet service provider failed to remove the content upon receipt of a valid notice under section 3 of the Act, it would be committing an offence. The Internet Service Providers’ Association argued that:

When section 3 notices of the Act are invoked to remove material then there is no issue; when they’re not invoked it becomes more problematic. As in other areas, ISPs are not best placed to determine what constitutes violent extremism and where the line should be drawn. This is particularly true of a sensitive area like radicalisation, with differing views on what may constitute violent extremist.

55. Professor Neumann, who co-authored Countering Online Radicalisation for the International Center for Radicalisation in 2009, told us that the Government had implemented a number of their recommendations:

One of our recommendations was to bring strategic prosecutions—not necessarily taking down websites but to prosecute the people who are producing the content for the websites. That has happened, to some extent. There is also a mechanism that the Government have introduced for deciding what kind of content should be taken down and that has also been done. Most importantly, we believe that there is no technical solution to this problem and that this problem needs to be addressed differently, and the Government have followed us there.

However, he considered that more remained to be done:

The most profitable way for any Government to address this problem is to bring political pressure, in some cases, to bear on internet providers-big internet companies who are hosting extremist videos in places like YouTube, Google, Facebook … They do that to some extent but they could do it more consistently. I believe that, for example, all the measures that have been taken by YouTube to clean up its act have always been in response to political pressure, both from the United States and the United Kingdom …

This is not about freedom of speech. All these websites, whether it is YouTube or Facebook, have their own rules. They have acceptable behaviours. They all say, “We are against hate speech” and they are very effective in removing sexual content or copyright content. Why can they not be equally effective at removing, for example, extremist Islamist or extremist right-wing content? Primarily, I believe it is because it is not in their commercial interest and that is why it is so important that politicians and Governments bring political pressure to bear.

The Internet Service Providers’ Association argued that it would be “impractical” for ISPs to be expected to proactively monitor material, given the sheer volume of content online, as well as undesirable, given the implications for freedom of expression.

56. Assistant Chief Constable John Wright, the National Prevent Coordinator for the police, added that there was a need for greater international cooperation, given that most of the websites are hosted outside the UK’s jurisdiction. The Internet Service Providers’ Association confirmed that if material was hosted outside of the UK, a UK intermediary would be unable to remove it. They agreed that “to improve this, greater international cooperation could be explored, although what constitutes violent extremist under the law in one country is not necessarily the same elsewhere.”

57. Given the impossibility of comprehensively controlling the internet, it is necessary to employ other methods to tackle the issue. Alyas Karmani argued:

If you are thinking about banning the internet, you have just got to provide a counter-narrative. That is what we do at STREET, so what we do is we identify their narrative and then you have to put an equally effective counter-narrative, because if you ban one site, 10 others emerge, and the sophistication of various ideologues in terms of promoting on the internet and through social media is highly proficient.

The Government has been attempting to counter terrorist ideology, this work being led by the Research, Information and Communications Unit at the Home Office; however, Charles Farr admitted that:

Getting that message across … to a group of people who would rarely read the media that we would normally work with, is very challenging.

The Government’s focus will be on “increasing the confidence of civil society activists to challenge online extremist material effectively and to provide credible alternatives.”

58. Jamie Bartlett was also concerned that children were not developing the skills that would enable them to sift critically material on the internet:

A lot of the information that looks very trustworthy and accurate—and people tend to go on aesthetics of websites—is absolutely bogus but we are not taught this in schools because it has happened so quickly. People are not being taught in school how to critically evaluate internet-based content and I think that is one of the biggest weaknesses that we face at the moment.

59. The Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit does limited but valuable work in challenging internet service providers to remove violent extremist material where it contravenes the law. We suggest that the Government work with internet service providers in the UK to develop a Code of Conduct committing them to removing violent extremist material, as defined for the purposes of section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2006. Many relevant websites are hosted abroad: the Government should also therefore strive towards greater international cooperation to tackle this issue.

60. Given the impossibility of completely ridding the internet of violent extremist material, it is important to support defences against it. We support the Government’s approach to empowering civil society groups to counter extremist ideology online. The whole area of communications technology and social networking is complex and extremely fast-moving. A form of interaction that is commonly used by thousands or even millions of people at one point in time may only have been developed a matter of months or even weeks earlier. It follows that legislation and regulation struggle to keep up and can provide a blunt instrument at best. Leaders in fields such as education, the law and Parliament also need to be involved. Evidence taken by this committee in regard to the riots in London last August showed that some police forces have identified social networks as providing both challenges and opportunities, with the message from one chief constable that the police recognised that ‘we need to be engaged’. In respect of terrorism, as in respect of organised crime, the Government should seek to build on the partnership approach to prevention that has proved successful in the field of child abuse and child protection.

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