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Criminalise reading as part of "netwar" against ISIS, says think tank
25.9.17
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The UK government should consider criminalising "the persistent consumption of extremist content online" and "the possession and viewing of extremist content" as part of a strategy against "the virtual threat" posed by Islamic extremism, says a new report by conservative think tank Policy Exchange.

The report, 'The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online' also calls for an "ethical code of conduct for researchers, by which they pledge not to re-post original jihadist content in unadulterated form" and government regulation of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that are used by organisations such as ISIS to spread propaganda.

With regard to online content - part of the "supply" problem - the report proposes that companies be pressured to introduce more stringent terms of service and be obliged to work with the police's Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), as well as be subject to " a new independent regulator of social media content, within the purview of Ofcom," with the power to levy financial penalties.

On the "demand" side, the authors argue that "civil remedies" could be used against the consumption of "extremist content", rather than outright criminalisation, "perhaps by extending mechanisms such as the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), or revisiting proposals for 'Extremism Disruption Orders'."

TPIMs are a type of civil order that permit forced relocation and house arrest, restrictions on travel and obligatory attendance "to attend appointments with specified persons to further... de-radicalisation," amongst other things. At the end of October 2016 there were six TPIMs in force.

Extremism Diruption Orders were proposed in September 2014 during current prime minister Theresa May's time as home secretary, when a swathe of measures against "extremism" were proposed and had to be dropped due to the government's inability to define the term.

A proposed Counter-Extremism Bill went "through 'dozens of drafts' and Whitehall officials are still struggling to find a definition of “extremist” that will not be immediately challenged in the courts," according to a May 2016 report in The Guardian.

Nevertheless, it seems that the ideas struck a chord at Policy Exchange, which describes itself as "the UK's leading think tank" aiming "to develop and promote new policy ideas which deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy." The website Powerbase describes it as "a neoconservative orientated think-tank" with its roots in a group seeking to "modernise" the Conservative Party.

The authors of the Policy Exchange report argue that the problems faced by the government with defining extremism "are surely surmountable" and finding a workable definition should be "a priority for the proposed Commission for Countering Extremism – a new body being established to identify and expose examples of extremism."

This would be a significant step towards what is described as "the 'best case' solution of automated, instant removal" of extremist content, although the report admits that at the moment this "seems a long way off".

The authors are clearly aware of the controversial nature of their proposals, arguing that "the scale of the challenge requires innovative thinking and a bold new approach," and it appears that they hope to affect fundamental changes:

"As a society, we must seek a new consensus on: the balance between liberty and security; the role of the State in relation to the internet; the moral and social norms that are appropriate to the digital age."

A similar tone is taken in the report's foreward by retired US Army General David Petraeus:

"This domain of the fight against jihadists may well be the longest campaign of what has been termed 'the long war', and it is vital that the concepts to guide it - and the tactics and techniques to prosecute it - are developed further."

The authors are keen to highlight the likelihood of public support for their proposals, on the basis of polling undertaken for the report, despite making clear "the artificiality of the exercise - presenting participants with a binary choice [of freedoms versus security], which is in many ways a false choice."

It states that "powers would need to be framed carefully to avoid any undue infringement of civil liberties" - which merely begs the question of what exactly would be considered "undue" in the opinion of the authors and the politicians who may take up their ideas.

See: The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online, Policy Exchange, 19 September 2017

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