UK ISPs forced to block extremist content

The UK government will order Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to websites containing extremist content, according to crime and security minister, James Brokenshire.

The plans will see ISPs obliged to block content deemed to be too extreme for online publication by a soon-to-be-formed specialist unit. The system will operate in a manner similar to the ban on sites accused of copyright infringement that has been in place since early 2012, and the more recent ban on sites distributing images of child abuse.

The move has already triggered concerns about freedom of speech, as the government adds more and more sites to its list of blocked domains.

"There is always a concern about mission creep," said one source from a major ISP. "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 search-and-remove tactics for child abuse images are also aided by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which recruits and trains staff to find and report abusive images to the police. The IWF is partly funded by the ISPs themselves, but the body responsible for finding and reporting extremist websites has yet to be announced, and would likely be publicly-funded.

Some have already suggested that the role will be given to the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), which already records and reports "illegal terrorist or extremist content."

On its website, the CTIRU includes the following material to be illegal and extremist:

  • 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

However, with so many methods of circumventing ISP blocks, critics have questioned whether the move will be effective enough to justify the troubling civil liberties implications it entails.

Since the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in May of this year, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to "drain the swamp" in which Islamic extremism is allowed to grow, and halt the "conveyor belt to radicalisation" taking hold of young British Muslims. This move is part of that campaign.

On a 23 October exchange in Parliament, Cameron promised to set out "a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites."

No surprise, then, that this was coming. But will this be the last raft of sites to be blocked by the government?