The UK government wants to block “extremist” content, but who decides what that is?

David Cameron by World Economic Forum

The UK government has confirmed that it will indeed order internet service providers to block access to “extremist” websites.

Prime Minister David Cameron previously said as much in a 23 October exchange in Parliament: “We have had repeated meetings of the extremism task force—it met again yesterday—setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites.”

This came not long after Cameron convinced ISPs to institute on-by-default blocks against (legal) pornography. Now we know that really was the top of a slippery slope: on Wednesday, crime and security minister James Brokenshire told the Internet Service Providers Association conference in London that the government would soon come up with concrete proposals for censoring “extremist” content.

This will be achieved in much the same way as child pornography is currently censored, according to The Guardian.

A new blacklist

In the case of child abuse, a well-meaning but ultimately not very accountable organization called the Internet Watch Foundation runs a blacklist that ISPs use to automatically block illegal content. In the case of “extremist” material, that power may end up in the hands of a body within the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, which already records reports of “illegal terrorist or extremist content.”

What does “extremist mean”? The Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit says examples include:

  • Speeches or essays calling for racial or religious violence
  • Videos of violence with messages of ‘glorification’ or praise for terrorists
  • Postings inciting people to commit acts of terrorism or violent extremism
  • Messages intended to stir up hatred against any religious or ethnic group
  • Bomb-making instructions

So Brits can expect to see all that stuff magically disappear. Unless it’s on the dark web. Or unless they use an international proxy or VPN, or any of the other myriad ways in which such blocks can be – and always are – circumvented by those who apply themselves a little.

Whose extremism is it anyway?

Of course, that list above is just a sample; the UK authorities’ definition of extremism has always been quite broad. Just ask respected comedian, journalist and activist Mark Thomas, for example – protesting against war and the arms trade has won him inclusion on a list of “domestic extremists”.

The ISPs are obviously not happy. As one source complained to The Guardian: “There is always a concern about mission creep… When it comes to incitement it’s not as clear cut as child exploitation. If there is a robust appeals process, that could potentially overcome some of those concerns.”

The problem is, appeals processes often don’t work when the material is hosted overseas, which is the whole point here – if it were hosted in the UK, the government could just have it taken down (in case you missed it, free speech doesn’t enjoy much protection there). Instead, the British authorities try to censor the conduit.

After the way they folded over the porn-filter issue, I rather hope the ISPs will rediscover their nerve and fight this one – with “extremism” being such a mutable term, we’re heading into very dangerous territory here.

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