The UK Prime Minister has announced a new scheme to make it easier for members of the public to report extremist internet material to Scotland Yard’s dedicated censorship unit, with an online panic-button hosted by major internet service providers (ISP).
The system, which is being rolled out in conjunction with ISPs BT, Virgin, Sky and Talk Talk, will work in a similar way to the Metropolitan Police’s child protection panic button, which allows concerned individuals to make reports to the police online. The service providers will work together with the police to block extremist material, using their content filters to prevent radicalising material being seen in the same way as extreme pornography. The filters are optional and are normally used by families with young children.
The plan, which has not yet been formally agreed with the ISPs, was announced by David Cameron during an address to the parliament of Commonwealth partner Australia. Mr Cameron said: “In the UK we are pushing them to do more, including strengthening filters, improving reporting mechanisms and being more proactive in taking down this harmful material.
“We are making progress but there is further to go. This is their social responsibility – and we expect them to live up to it.”
Because of the way ISP filtering technology works, this system will be good at hiding entire websites that contain Islamist material, but will struggle to target material on otherwise normal social networks such as Facebook or Twitter without blocking them completely.
The UK’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit is already extremely busy, routinely blocking over 1,000 items online a week, and this system is certain to increase the load, and therefore the possibility of mistakes, leading to legitimate content being blocked.
The BBC reports the comments of one civil rights group, Open Rights, who have expressed concerns at what appears to be another government censorship programme. The director, Jim Killock said of his concerns of the system’s perceived fallibility: “We need transparency whenever political content is blocked even when we are talking about websites that espouse extremist views.
“We need the government to be clear about what sites they are blocking, why they are blocking them and whether there will be redress for site owners who believe that their website has been blocked incorrectly.
“Given the low uptake of filters, it is difficult to see how effective the government’s approach will be when it comes to preventing young people from seeing material they have deemed inappropriate. Anyone with an interest in extremist views can surely find ways of circumventing child-friendly filters.”
This is not the first time recently that senior government figures have called upon tech companies to self-censor. Robert Hannigan, the new director of the UK’s communication monitoring organisation GCHQ said last week that tech companies like Facebook and Twitter were “in denial” over being command and control centres for terrorist networks. He said “we need a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies in the area of protecting our citizens… Better to do it now than in the aftermath of greater violence”.