Prevent - incompetence

'Unnecessary, inefficient, and above all, counter-productive.' Oliver Keyes on the government's counter-terrorism review

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: Steve Cadman/

The British government has released a new counter-terrorism review, named Prevent, covering both how the strategies they've got at the moment are working, and what strategies they plan to implement in the future. At first glance it might not be clear why this is of interest to open rights campaigners– after all, most of it covers working with faith-based groups, disseminating counter-ideologies, so on, so forth. But then you get to Chapter 10 and the implications of the review become worrying.

Currently, Sections 1-3 of the Terrorism Act 2006 make it illegal to engage in terrorism, disseminate terrorist literature, or fail to remove such literature after legal notice has been given. That's been applied not only to physical publications, but also to the net, although Prevent notes that no notices have actually been posted – UK-based ISPs have generally been responsive enough to remove any problematic literature before the courts have had to get involved. Evidently, however, this isn't enough; after all, a lot of websites are hosted overseas, where UK criminal law can't apply.

The solution, according to Prevent, is to ensure a "filtering product" rolled out equally across government agencies, schools, libraries, colleges, and other public buildings; while they have already tried to do this, there are evidently concerns that it hasn't been adopted widely enough (apparently nobody implementing it thought to include a mechanism to check uptake rates).

This "filtering product" for public sector facilities would be sent, along with a list of "violent and unlawful" URLs, to voluntary filtering organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which are partnered with ISPs to provide filtering for their customers.

At first glance, it's difficult to see how these ideas can be anything but unnecessary, inefficient, and above all, counter-productive.

Let's take the voluntary filtering organisations, for example. The key word there is "voluntary"; some ISPs use them, some ISPs do not. The result of this is that if you base your counter-terrorism strategy on the idea of distributing blacklists to these bodies, there will inevitably be some organisations not covered.

This means the government will have to run two distinct processes in parallel: one for those ISPs who sign up to such services, in which lists of "violent and unlawful" websites are provided, and one for everyone else, in which the security services have to go around providing URLs individually and hoping the ISPs are nice enough to block them before the courts get involved.

In any case, this filtering strategy doesn't seem necessary – after all, the same report which claims ISPs need additional filtering is the one which says ISPs are so responsive to blacklists and takedown notices the government hasn't even had to apply the law yet. It's also the same report which admits in Chapter 8 that "comparatively few texts circulate on the internet" in the firstplace.

It also has to be pointed out that internet filtering isn't perfect; as with anything that involves humans, it's subject to errors. The report's use of the IWF as an example might have been because it's the most well-known filtering organisation, but in fact, it has that status largely due to a series of widely-publicised errors that ended with the body blocking Wikipedia for hosting child porn – specifically the cover of a Scorpions album.

Now, I hate 80s hair-metal as much as the next man, but even I think that's a bit harsh. Regardless, the point remains: internet filtering already leads to the collateral damage of blocking educational and legitimate content, and that collateral damage can only increase as the amount of filtering does.

The other edge of the sword, of course, is that just as internet filtering inevitably over-filters educational content, it will inevitably fail to filter precisely the sort of extremist literature which Prevent is attempting to suppress.

The lists simply cannot contain every "violent and unlawful" website, and even if they could, this sort of suppression cannot cover IRC conversations, usenet or FTP transfers, or any of a thousand other ways of distributing problematic content via the internet. All this filtering strategy will achieve is driving extremist literature underground, making it harder to find and track while also providing an utterly false sense of security.

Mostly, of course, this strategy is simply counter-productive. Forget, for a second, the inefficiencies of implementing this, or whether or not doing so is even justified. Even if it is justified, and even if it can be implemented in some perfect format in which no educational content is blocked and all extremist work is, it's not worth doing.

Why? Because if you want to create an environment in which the "the western world is out to get us" mantra of extremism has some credence, I can think of no better way than to dedicate significant time and effort to suppressing anyone who expresses a contrary opinion, forcing them underground to places where no counter-argument exists.

As it happens, an official comment on this subject supports this argument, saying 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". Unfortunately, that comment is from....oh. The Prevent report itself.

Inefficient, unnecessary, counter-productive – and now not even consistent. Welcome to the British government.

Oliver Keyes is a blogger and writer on the subjects of politics, constitutional law and civil liberties


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Comments (2)

  1. Mani:
    Jun 29, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    This is an excellent article, but I would suggest that the author reconsider his position on the Internet Watch Foundation and their take on the Scorpions Cover for the Album “Virgin Killer”.

    The album cover shows a naked twelve-year old girl in an erotic pose. If that isn’t child porn than what is?

    The sexualisation of children is an extremely alarming phenomenon. It isn’t new either, especially for girls. Just look at the age-old fetish for women to dress up in school girl uniforms or otherwise act like very young girls. In primitive countries girl children are routinely forced into arranged marriages. It is unfortunately a legacy of primitive (shall we say patriarchical, macho) societies that prey on the weak.

    Backwardness has plagued our society for centuries, but we have evolved since then. After all a few millennia ago in Ancient Egypt it was ok for brother and sisters to get married. Now moral norms and the science of eugenics has encouraged us to view incest as repugnant.

    In the modern day, science and humanity encourage us to protect vulnerable sections of our society, including children.

    Some point to the fact that the girl in the Scorpions cover gave her consent to the picture. But just because children/ minors consent to sexual or erotic activity doesn’t make it right for adults to exploit them.

    Children/ minors are treated differently by the law in most scenarios. In criminal law, they do not get the same sentences as adults. In commercial law, they are not deemed to have capacity to give a valid consent. Why should it be any different in a sexual context?

    Consenting to exploitation doesn’t condone the act of exploitation. Stockholm syndrome, social conditioning and other such phenomenon show that abusers can often convince their victims that what they have done is ok.

    It is important for us to maintain boundaries. If we are not mindful of the threat of treating children as sexual objects, it will seep insidiously into our mindset. You may think that you are a logical person that would never ever fall into this trap, but consider this: commercial companies spend billions on advertising betting on the fact that they can make us buy things that aren’t necessarily good for us - think cigarettes and junk food.

    I absolutely agree with you that ad hoc, opaque self-regulation of the internet is not the way forward. However, I do believe that if anyone should have a say on child porn it should be psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and victims of child abuse.

    There are unfortunately many well-meaning people who champion the right to freedom of expression, but do not realize the consequences of a completely unregulated right.

    Have an open discussion on what is and what is not child porn and ensure that there is due process, but give appropriate weight to the experts.

  2. Dave Murphy:
    Jul 09, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    The Scorpions cover also illustrates what happens when overzealous regulation has unintended consequences. The issue originally came to light when users in the UK couldn't access the WikiPedia article where the image was placed in context. A huge proportion of UK users were effectively blocked from contributing to WikiPedia thanks to the proxy filtering that was implemented.

    Something that's also worth noting is that the article in question saw 2000% of it's normal daily traffic because of the related publicity. An attempt to censor and prohibit something deemed offensive resulted in many more people being exposed to the "potential harm" than would have otherwise been the case.

    There's a good explanation of the problems and the issues here

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Oliver Keyes on Jun 21, 2011

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