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