Countering Extremism Strategy turns the public into internet police (Wired UK)


The UK government has outlined its vision for an internet in which communication is monitored, the general public censors itself, and elected officials fund voices of their choosing online. This is the “Counter-Extremism Strategy” — a document seemingly couched in fear-mongering rhetoric that could, critics argue, see an end to freedom online.

Of course, its proponents see the alternative in similar terms.

“This is, at its heart, a battle of ideas. On one side sit the extremists, with a deliberate strategy to infect public debate, divide our communities and advance their warped worldview,” Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in a Facebook post about the new policy. 

For now, it is Islamist extremists, like ISIL, and extreme right-wing groups, like Blood & Honour, that sit on the “infectious” side of the fence, in the policy’s view.

“On the other side must sit everyone else — not just the institutions of the state, such as the government, police and security services; but community groups and the rest of society. The extremist narrative needs to be fought every day at the kitchen table, on the university campus, online and on the airwaves,” Cameron continued. 

The “Counter-Extremism Strategy” has been introduced this October as part of the government’s plan to combat terrorism and extremism. It comes as hate crime in the UK has increased by 18 percent, with more than 52,500 incidences recorded by police in England and Wales in 2014 to 2015.

The checks on internet freedom form an element of the government’s wider move to limit internet freedom. Later this year it is due to publish the Communications Data Bill, which is expected to expand and clarify the government’s surveillance powers, and limit circumvention through tools like encryption.

This strategy, as outlined so far, is not actually introducing new measures. But it will expand the work the government is already doing to censor content online, it says. The Met’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit has removed over 110,000 “pieces of propaganda,” as the document calls it, since 2010. More than 38,000 pieces have been removed in the last 10 months.

But the work of law enforcement is not enough. Cameron wants public sector workers, tech companies, communications service providers, news organisations, and the general public to help police his internet. 

In response, the Muslim Council of Britain has warned that Cameron must make sure he doesn’t launch a McCarthyist witch-hunt against extremists in Britain. 

“We cannot help detect the McCarthyist undertones in the proposal to create blacklists and exclude and ban people deemed to be extremist. If we are to have such lists at all, they should be determined through a transparent process and subject to judicial oversight to prevent any discrimination and political interference based on pressure from foreign governments,” says Dr Shuja Shafi, the Muslim Council of Britain’s secretary general. 

So what does the document actually say? And where does it say it?

Snitch on your neighbours 

Perhaps the most worrying part of the strategy is the government’s desire to create an online police out of the public. It boasts that public referrals of extremist content are up by 400 percent from last year — and it’s keen for that number to continue to increase.

“The public are already vigilant about reporting concerns,” says the report on page 34. “But we must ensure that we remain robust.”

It wants to “empower people to use the internet to challenge extremists online.” To do this, the government plans to create a group of members from industry, government and the public that will agree how to limit access to extremist material on the internet “without compromising the principle of an open internet.” 

New websites for civil society

As part of its move to empower the public, the government has pledged £5 million to assist grassroots organisations establish significant presences online. It hopes these will offer an attractive alternative to the slick recruitment and ideological platforms of ISIL and extreme right-wing groups.

The money will go towards helping civil society groups and “credible commentators” build “compelling” online presences that rival those of extremists. This includes social media training, technical assistance for setting up websites, and project funding.

On page 24, the report notes “non-traditional groups” vulnerable to extremist ideology, like women, families and younger people, “rely significantly on the internet for information and relationships.” The government believes that if civil society groups build strong online platforms these will be more attractive than extremist sites. To support younger people, it will also offer a national education programme to make them “more resilient to the risks of radicalisation online.”

Getting industry involved

“We need industry to strengthen their terms and conditions, to ensure fewer pieces of extremist material appear online, and that any such material is taken down quickly,” says the document on page 25

Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube are all cited as places that extremist material has been published in recent years. Companies like these could be asked to assist the government censor content and help develop stronger content filters.

Stricter rules for broadcasters 

TV and radio broadcasters have been kindly asked to help drown out extremist voices by focusing on the mainstream in their shows.

It supposedly remains “clear that [broadcasters] are free to put whoever they want on the airwaves” — given “that extremists can make for exciting, rating friendly broadcasts.” But the government reminds them “some extremists are sophisticated communicators who seek to exploit television and radio services to broaden their reach,” and stresses broadcasters “should exercise their judgment to shape debates in a positive way.”

Broadcasters that fail to “amplify” mainstream voices could find themselves pulled from the airwaves. Ofcom will be given greater powers through the Broadcasting Code to “immediately” suspend TV and radio services that broadcast “unacceptable extremist material.” These powers could also be extended to include online channels.

Learn from the lessons of fighting child sexual exploitation

The government will ask the Internet Watch Foundation — which played a key role in the fight against child sexual exploitation online — to help it tackle extremist content. It will also ask communications service providers to “step up their response to protect their users from online extremism.” 

Resort to the police

In the event that the public, internet service providers and tech companies fail in their mission, the government will resort to the police.

“The majority of this strategy is about countering extremism by working in partnership with others, using our values — such as free speech — to confront and challenge extremist ideologies head on. However, in a small number of the most dangerous cases it is necessary to go further, and to use the law to deal with those facilitators and advocates of extremism who pose the greatest threat to others.”

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19 October 2015 | 4:44 pm – Source:


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