Grooming for jihad
25 Jan 2008

Jacqui Smith
New proposals to limit extremist speech could have a significant chilling effect on the Internet, argues Bill Thompson

Taking a leaf from its approach to prosecuting predatory paedophiles who use the Internet to establish contact with young people, the British government is planning to take on those who are promoting violence and extremism through websites, chat rooms and email.

Speaking at the first International Conference on Radicalisation and Political Violence on 17 January, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith focused on what she called “the threat posed by terror Svengalis who work to seduce young people into believing that terrorism is a fully feasible outlet for their teenage anger” and promised to “challenge the ideology of violent extremism behind the acts of terrorism”.

She went on to say: “If we are ready and willing to take action to stop the grooming of vulnerable young [people] on social networking sites, then I believe we should also take action against those who groom vulnerable people for the purposes of violent extremism.”

It’s a worthy goal, but, as so often when governments tackle online issues, the detailed proposals are either absent or naïvely optimistic. Smith can say pronounce that “the Internet is not a no-go area for government”, but that doesn’t mean they will actually be able to do anything to solve the problems they identify — as we have seen with the images of child abuse and online “grooming”, neither of which has exactly been sorted out by draconian legislation.

After her speech Smith told reporters it should be possible to develop filters to remove militant material from the Web, comparing it to the content filters used to protect children. Unfortunately experience shows that these filters are either easily bypassed or that they block a great deal of material which they shouldn’t. Meanwhile, the Internet industry has neither the energy nor the inclination to go looking for dodgy websites or listening in to everyone’s online chats in case the subject turns to suicide bombing.

In the end the Home Office will not be able to rely on technical solutions, so we are likely to see legislation instead, and this is where the real danger lies, since the obvious approach is to make material which is seen as encouraging terrorism illegal to view or possess, leaving anyone visiting sites or storing it on their computers open to prosecution.

If this happens then Smith’s explicit comparison of terrorist material with images of child abuse, and the parallels she draws between those seeking sexual contact with children and those seeking to radicalise young people should worry us greatly.

It is hard to argue against the prohibition on images of child abuse – although the extension to faked or even computer-generated imagery is far less defensible. But if Smith decides she needs to deliver on the promises she made at the conference and wants to turn her half-baked proposals into law then we could find our online freedoms reduced yet again, another casualty in the “war against terror”.

The laws against “grooming” children are a clear example of thought crime, where legislation is based on someone’s inferred intention rather than their actions, and any attempt to extend them to the even more vague area of “extremism” would end up criminalising many innocent people and severely limiting free expression online.

Let’s just hope that the Home Secretary’s friends in the Internet industry manage to persuade her that this is another public pronouncement that can be left to fade from memory.

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