BBC interviews – on the UK Home Secretary’s proposals

There was little detail in the speech by the UK Home Secretary yesterday, but one possibility is that the CleanFeed system of hybrid URL filtering might be applied to attempt censorship of radical material on the Internet.

I was interviewed for the BBC World News Service and BBC Radio’s Simon Mayo programme. One thought which occurred is that the Home Secretary’s use of language about “grooming” suggests a belief that violent militant radicalisation is a top down process, similar to an adult grooming a child for criminal purposes. I think this is perhaps misleading. Radicalisation on the internet seems to be bottom up and horizontal, a process in which like minded individuals consult the Internet for information that will support their assumptions, and lend foundations to their political perspective. Fighting violent radicalisation as “grooming” would prioritise the identification of “groomers”, which could divert effort from the true priority: tacking the narrative that some young people in Europe are using to groom themselves as militants.

I also was sent a few questions by a Reuters journalist, and it got me thinking. Here’s what I came up with:

How can one remove illegal material from web if hosted abroad? One can only remove illegal material hosted abroad if it can secure cooperation with the relevant foreign authorities. This would require sufficient levels of cooperation and agreement on what content should be subject to removal. However, even if these conditions were met, and if content hosted in a foreign jurisdiction were removed, there would be nothing to prevent the material from remaining on other “mirrored” hosts that would provide online access to it from other foreign jurisdictions. Therefore, in the absence of a binding international treaty and an international agreement on what content ought to be removed, take down notices of websites are largely irrelevant.

How serious a threat does such material pose? The operations of “Irhabi 007” illustrated yet again that the Internet provides useful means of coordination and  communication among militant affiliates and sympathisers. This is one of a series of recent cases that have seen large volumes of Internet data admitted as evidence of terrorist activities.

Young Internet users, to who Web 2.0 is a native environment, can tap-in to communities that are sympathetic to militant Islamist objectives, and from whose members they can  learn and develop a rational that encourages them to seek opportunities to contribute to violent jihad. Much of this online content capitalises on current events, resonates with readers’ own personal experiences, and can be particularly compelling to those with little prior knowledge of Islam. This may be particularly true of young second or third generation Europeans of Muslim extraction and to converts who, in the absence of a solid personal understanding of Islam, could be more easily swayed by crude, but strongly expressed, puritanical argument.

Do clampdowns risk on the Internet risk alienation? I think so. Essentially, talk of censorship misses the point and ignores the new realities of online communications. In the past three years there has been a profound revolution in communication on the Internet. As the Home Secretary rightly notes, the new forms of communication on the Internet such as social networking are now of particular concern. The trend of “Web 2.0” is that communication is now a two-way horizintal process. Internet users have become the masters of online content, rather than simply passive receivers of information.

This has turned the norms of communication, marketing, business, and innovation upon their heads. The result is that individual internet users are now the designers, editors, and contributors of content on the internet, and that they trust their peers’ opinions about what content merits attention. Clearly governments cannot take the lead role in countering the militant call to violence in such an environment. Governments lack the credibility, the technical wherewithal, and in many cases the legal ability to do so.

In this new context the State can not enforce its authority on the Internet. To attempt to censor the Net would expose ISPs to additional costs, would expose the State to significant legal difficulty, and could reduce the reliability and usefulness of the Internet. More importantly, no existing system of censorship that could be implemented would prevent a determined user from accessing whatever content they wished to view. The inevitable consequence of implementing an ineffective censorship system is to add the glamour of rebellion to the proscribed content.

It is essential to challenge the call to violence at the point of dissemination on the chatrooms and web forums, where government is unable to reach. To do so, ironically, this strategy suggests a local, lo-fi approach to a global communications problem. We do not yet know what the UK Home Secretary has in mind. She may well be considering the useful alternative of introducing new social and education measures that can enable young Internet users to identify and refute the call to violence in the chat rooms and web forums on the Internet, where Government is often unable to reach.

I would suggest that the entire thrust of her new strategy should be to raise a question mark in the minds of internet users who might be sympathetic to the militant cause. In an era of user driven communications, where peer debate and peer recommendation governs the digestion of information, raising doubt and second thoughts about the justifications and effects of militant violence is crucial. The Home Office can engage with enabling stakeholders across society, such as schools and community groups, to empower Internet users themselves to challenge or reconsider the call to violence on the chatrooms and webforums where government is unable to reach, and which are central in the Web 2.0 phase of the Internet’s development. By avoiding direct government involvement, this strategy would avoid adding to the glamour of violence among those who would prefer to reject statements from authority. By opting for an open approach based on dialogue rather than regulation, this strategy leaves the Internet’s social, cultural, and economic potential unharmed.

There are a number of studies currently examining this matter in detail. In a practical sense, the UK Government has already taken a number of steps against radicalisation. For example, the Department of Communities has a “Pathfinder Fund” which supports a wide range of local initiatives, and it will be interesting to see which are successful and which are not as this process continues. A particularly valuable initiative is the website, which aims to present a mainstream view of Islam by disseminating the sermons and articles of leading British Islamic scholars.  Another useful step is the UK security services involvement with existing efforts to monitor and learn from militants use of the Internet, such as Europol’s Check the Web project, which pools technical and linguistic resources to better learn about the perspectives and objectives of militants across Europe. My own PhD, which I will continue from October, if all goes well, will look at this question.

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