The Government’s new countermeasures against extremist communications are leading the UK down a dark road. They want to coerce internet companies like Facebook into policing their networks and threaten the public with harsh sentences for viewing illegal content.
Illegal content is a serious concern, but internet companies are not fit to police their own networks. Unlike an independent judiciary, businesses are not impartial. Faced with the threat of fines, they will err on the side of caution by removing any content deemed remotely risky.
Government demands for quick takedowns will encourage the use of crude algorithms that can’t tell the difference between extremist propaganda and academic or journalistic analysis, increasing the already widespread blocking of lawful content. Check out ORG’s Blocked tool to see the growing number of legal websites censored by unreliable ISP filters.
Instead of deterring would-be terrorists, Amber Rudd’s call for 15 year sentences just for viewing extremist content could have the opposite effect. It criminalises the fragile demographic on the borderline of extremist circles and could inspire solidarity with radical ideology. It could also hinder intelligence gathering by driving terrorists further underground.
Harsh penalties might also impact journalists and academics doing important research into extremism. Though they would surely remain free to conduct their studies, intimidating penalties could make them think twice and diminish freedoms.
Extremist content online is a growing problem, but the answer is not harsher sentences or promoting Mark Zuckerberg to Commissioner of the Digital Police.