The Independent View: Censorship is not the way forward in countering online extremism

Earlier this month, the Government reiterated its intent to censor online extremist content through ISP filtering systems. This has largely been in reaction to fears over radical jihadi videos coming from Syria and has been heightened due to recent estimates of 2,000 European fighters travelling to Syria. There is particular concern over the influence foreign fighters may have on the young and impressionable upon their return to their countries of origin.

Though well-intentioned, government-controlled filtering is problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it raises big questions about what can be deemed ‘extremist’ in theory. Secondly, current filtering technology is quite blunt and, in practice, such measures end up over-filtering which has many negative consequences. Thirdly, deleting, filtering or censoring unwanted content does not ensure that material will not resurface rapidly. Even blocked material can easily be accessed through a variety of proxy servers and add-ons.

The fear among counter-terrorist researchers is that the more online extremist content is blocked and deleted, the more such content is pushed into the ‘dark internet’, where tracking and information retrieval is nearly impossible. This also makes it much more difficult for researchers to extract data and for counter-extremism practitioners to engage in dialogue and debate.

Within the debate of online censorship, extremist content has been consistently and incorrectly paralleled with current efforts for online filtering of child abuse or rape content. There is a society-wide consensus around the illegality of child abuse and rape and there is no real debate to be had around the merits of such malicious activities. ‘Extremism’, on the other hand, is an easily distorted and often subjective term that can be highly contentious and debated when defined centrally by government.

That is not to say that current efforts by the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) should discontinue. The CTIRU has taken down large quantities of online content relating to illegal terrorist activities. It needs to be made clear that broad terms with unclear regulatory definitions, such as ‘extremist’, are not synonymous with the precise and well-defined legal guidelines for ‘terrorism’ defined under the Terrorism Acts existing in the UK.

The Government has chastised online social networks, such as Facebook and YouTube, for allowing controversial content, like recent videos from Syria of beheadings. This is not to say horrific content does not exist online but, in the fight against radicalization, a free internet is a tool rather than an obstacle. Creating large-scale government internet regulations is, therefore, targeting a symptom rather than the cause of radicalization. De-legitimizing the extremist narrative should be the real aim. Fighting online extremism through open debate, confrontation and the support for counter-extremism content is a far more effective, long-term and cost-effective approach.

Rather than spending time and money on illiberal and ineffective filtering processes that provide few measurable outcomes, the Government should be providing support for existing counter-extremism practitioners and their efforts.

Educators in schools, mentors in prisons and practitioners in communities should be should be given the help they need to extend their work to the online sphere. Pro-actively diffusing the initial allure of the extremist narrative to young individuals is always more powerful than waiting to react to extremist content online.

* Dr Erin Marie Saltman is Research Project Officer at Quilliam, working on research looking at online trends of radicalisation and how governments and organisations can counter these processes.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.

One Comment

  • Disagree. The current system funnels people to the darknet/onion sites, and we’ve already got statutory regulation whereby we can make ISPs man-in-the-middle those users and identify them. This has proved extremely useful in identifying people that want to hurt others. It would seem you’d like to stop this funneling because it makes things hard to measure, but that’s not the case either – once an offender has been caught they can be questioned first hand about their motivations instead of gleening information from the internet. Since these people will be isolated from others with the same view, you’re more likely to find deeper truths regarding their behaviours, thoughts and methods than if the information were retained online and you attempted to measure it. Nothing I’m writing here hasn’t been confirmed in recent months by the NSA/GCHQ or by Snowden documents, and systems like Tempora & PRISM looks to have global reach. I think we’ll see that the little bit of time where the governments really couldn’t access all communication was the period where most people died from extremist activity – this isn’t a normative statement, regardless of value judgements it’s possible this will be long-term factually accurate. A real head-scratcher for liberals, and an interesting analogous framework for considering other modern situations.

    The other argument you make is that extremism is different to child abuse or rape because it’s a more subjective term. You make this argument by giving a woolly definition on one side of a balance, a more concise explanation on the other and your point lies in the fictitious space created in between. I don’t see how killing a child by neglect is that different from blowing one up, yet you’re arguing we need a completely different methodology for dealing with people that want to blow them up. Words like “rape” and “abuse” clearly share the same issue as “extremism”, they aren’t objective truths at all (I think most people have heard a woman shout “rape” as some kind of unpleasant joke and heard a child claim that their parents are “abusing” them because they didn’t get what they wanted), if they were they would mean the same thing worldwide. David Starkey’s “that’s not what the word rape means” comment would of been laughed off by all involved if you were right, but it wasn’t, because what he was saying was literally true, and so it is apparent to me that terms like rape and abuse can have a high degree of subjectivity, in a similar manner to extremism. Also, whilst legal definition clarifies the use in a specific case, it doesn’t change social usage, nor dictionary definition – also it won’t escape legal definition for very long (see

    > in the fight against radicalization, a free internet is a tool rather than an obstacle

    A free internet is an oxymoron and people that use the term are confused as to the nature of the medium – how can a powered network be free? If it’s so free, why does this site need adverts? It costs billions for us to communicate over this medium, be assured that it has never been, nor ever will be free. If anyone was ever in any doubt about this, they should take some time to read more Snowden!

    Despite all of this, I enjoyed reading your article, and hope you’ll contribute further in the future!


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