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UK: new laws to restrict prospective terrorists' use of the internet

Nigel Morris-Co...

The UK's Home Office has announced that it intends to "update" anti terrorism laws to identify and act against those who use the internet in ways that suggest that they may be "radicalised" or in some other way involved with terrorism or a terrorist act, or the preparation for such an act.

"The government intends to change the law, so that people who repeatedly view terrorist content online could face up to 15 years behind bars. The proposed changes will strengthen the existing offence of possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist (Section 58 Terrorism Act 2000) so that it applies to material that is viewed repeatedly or streamed online. Currently the power only applies to online material which has been downloaded and stored on the offender’s computer, is saved on a separate device or printed off as a hard copy," said the Home Office in a statement yesterday.

It also said "The updated offence will ensure that only those found to repeatedly view online terrorist material will be captured by the offence, to safeguard those who click on a link by mistake or who could argue that they did so out of curiosity rather than with criminal intent. A defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ would still be available to academics, journalists or others who may have a legitimate reason to view such material."

But there is no excuse for those who publish information that terrorists or prospective terrorists may use: "The new maximum penalty of 15 years will also apply to terrorists who publish information about members of the armed forces, police and intelligence services for the purposes of preparing acts of terrorism (Section 58a of the Terrorism Act 2000). There have been a number of prosecutions for terrorism offences which have featured armed forces personnel (or military establishments) as targets for attacks, including the successful conviction of Junead Khan last year for planning to attack personnel at a USAF airbase in Norfolk, and of those responsible for the horrific murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby."

"The legal changes will also increase the maximum penalty from 10 to 15 years to reflect the seriousness of the offence and ensure [offenders] are locked up for longer."

However, the new law is hampered by the fact that it is not reflected in the laws of the very countries where the material is most likely to be published from. This means that even if there is an extradition treaty, in the absence of a corresponding law, the treaty would not apply. For this to happen, it would be necessary for the law to be expanded to be sufficiently similar to those for e.g. sedition in some of the states with the most repressive media laws. This is unlikely to be acceptable in the UK. Further, the statement does not make it clear who is responsible as a publisher - for example, will Facebook and its ilk be liable qua publisher, especially given the company's admission that its account regulation has allowed millions of accounts to be created in the name of fake identities.

It is also important to understand what is meant by "publishing." Is an e-mail or mobile phone group to be included? It is widely accepted that such groups are often used especially immediately before an attack.

The statement does not say who is responsible for identifying the material complained of, nor for monitoring visits to it. Will governments create a list of unacceptable content? That is hardly likely as they have so far failed to produce the kind of data that is needed for KYC in the banking sector, leaving financial institutions to bear the risks of insufficient information and the costs of attempting to comply with regulations.