This week the Home Secretary Theresa May unveiled the Coalition Government's optimistically titled new counter terrorism strategy 'prevent'¹. 'Prevent' is being billed by the Government as a way to deal with all forms of terrorism and extremism that the country is supposedly overrun by, as well as things like non-violent extremism and harmful ideas being disseminated by groups hell bent on... well, something.
The problem with this approach, as with any that intends to change how people think and what ideas are attractive, is how we define the threat. When we look not at terrorism, but at extremism, extremist views or radicalisation we leave ourselves open to making some fundamental mistakes, to trading fundamental freedoms and rights for protection against an ill defined enemy.
It is not a new concept that to deal with terrorism we must deal with the motivations for it, it is new however to define the motivations as vaguely as not holding a particular set of arbitrary values. It would seem that participation in the democratic process and advocating peaceful change are no longer sufficient to ensure that a group is not labelled as a supporter of terrorism, or a force for radicalisation.
The Prime Minister made that rather clear in Munich when he said "I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things." All noble aims, but what good is Freedom of speech if it cannot stray from a set of pre-determined values, even if they are values that most of us would support whole heartedly?
It is this broad definition of what may be harmful, never mind illegal, that is cause for concern. With proposed filtering and removal by law enforcement of on-line content, as well as encouragement of all ISP's to join in an orgy of self regulated voluntary censorship, it becomes not just concerning, but alarming.
A recent UN report from the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression made clear that: "Very few if any developments in information technologies have had such a revolutionary effect as the creation of the Internet", presenting the Internet as a force for good. It went on to state that "the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights". Surely that in itself should indicate the wrong headed approach in this strategy.
It is accurate to say that elements of this strategy taken together could represent an unparalleled risk to freedom of expression both online and offline. These risks are clearly articulated by the Governments claim in 'Prevent' that "we need to address the threat of radicalisation online... Ensure that action is taken to try to remove unlawful and harmful content from the internet" and that "Internet filtering across the public estate is essential."
A chilling statement. It is exactly this sort of thinking that the Secial Rapporteur warned against, "[The] features of the Internet that enable individuals to disseminate information in “real time” and to mobilize people has also created fear amongst Governments and the powerful. This has led to increased restrictions on the Internet through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies to block content, monitor and identify activists and critics, criminalization of legitimate expression, and adoption of restrictive legislation to justify such measures."
Any counter-terrorism strategy adopted by the Government should be fit for purpose, effective and based on evidence, it should work, this won't. The filtering certainly wont. It may hinder the general public from finding content defined as 'harmful', but it will also arm any group blocked with a claim of persecution. In essence the block will do as much to promote their causes as it does to protect us from reading about them.
The Government's primary responsibility is the Defense of the Realm after all. It seems that the Government is all too happy to praise the power of the Internet in the Middle East, yet fears it on home ground. We must not allow this to be a slippery slope to undermining the very freedoms the report purports to protect.