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New code of conduct should require ISPs to take down radical extremist content, MPs say

The Government should help UK internet service providers (ISPs) draw up new rules requiring them to proactively remove radical extremist content posted online, a committee of MPs has said.07 Feb 2012

The Home Affairs Committee said that the internet was one of the main "drivers of radicalisation" and that it was more likely that individuals become "radicalised" on the basis of what they read online than their experiences at university, prison or "religious institutions".

ISPs already respond to take down requests made by the Home Office's Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, but it has had only "limited" success in pinpointing radical material ISPs have to remove under the Terrorism Act, the Committee said. Whilst it was impossible to remove all "violent extremist material" from the internet ISPs should do more to take unlawful material down, it said.

"We suggest that the Government work with internet service providers in the UK to develop a Code of Conduct committing them to removing violent extremist material, as defined for the purposes of section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2006," the Committee said in its report on the roots of violent radicalisation.

"In terms of the four sectors we explored—universities, prisons, religious institutions and the internet—we conclude that religious institutions are not a major cause for concern but that the internet does play a role in violent radicalisation, although a level of face-to-face interaction is also usually required. The role of prisons and universities was less obvious. Much of the uncertainty relates to the fact that a number of convicted terrorists have attended prisons and universities, but there is seldom concrete evidence to confirm that this is where they were radicalised," it said.

Under the Terrorism Act law enforcement can order website operators or intermediaries to remove material they believe to be "unlawfully terrorism-related" and find those that fail to comply with the notice within two working days without a "reasonable excuse" liable for endorsing that material.

The Internet Service Providers' Association gave evidence to the Committee claiming that ISPs were happy to comply with take down requests under the Terrorism Act but were otherwise "not best placed to determine what constitutes violent extremism and where the line should be drawn". "This is particularly true of a sensitive area like radicalisation, with differing views on what may constitute violent extremist," the Association said.

"The Internet Service Providers' Association argued that it would be 'impractical' for ISPs to be expected to proactively monitor material, given the sheer volume of content online, as well as undesirable, given the implications for freedom of expression," the Committee's report said.

The Committee also called for greater international cooperation to ensure that foreign-hosted radical content was removed from the internet. UK ISPs are not able to remove material hosted abroad.

Sir Norman Bettison, who is the lead police officer in charge of the Government's terrorism 'Prevent Strategy', said that the Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit was as effective as "a pebble thrown into the World Wide Web ocean," the report said. However, it said approximately 200 websites or web pages had been taken down as a result of the referrals made to the Unit since it was established in 2010.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group which campaigns for digital rights, criticised the Home Affairs Committee proposals.

"Very little can be done to take down websites that are extreme: because they are rarely hosted in the UK. The alternative to takedown is censorship, which is both ineffective and hands a propaganda victory to the targets of that censorship," Killock said. "Furthermore, the committee should not be advocating "codes of conduct" but examining what the law says. If the UK really wants censorship, the minimum should be that it takes place through the courts."

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