UK and EU allies plan moves against terror websites

Europe's big five fast track data sharing

Closer co-operation between members of the G5 - a grouping of the five largest EU countries - will make it easier to close down websites supporting terrorism, according to UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke. Among a series of measures agreed at a G5 summit in Granada this week was the setting up of a technical group to "monitor and control the use of the Internet in international terrorism and organised crime."

The G5 is an informal grouping of interior ministers of the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, set up to develop closer co-operation on security and policing in 2003. It has no legal status within the EU and its agreements are non-binding, but it is heavily influential in shaping, and blazing a trail for, EU security policy. In an interview with Radio 4's World at One Clarke appeared to view the primary purpose of the Internet aspects of the agreement as being to make it easier to close down troublesome websites, but German Interior Minister Otto Schily stressed the "need to know what is brewing and how terrorist attacks are being prepared", and said that the five countries had agreed to ask telecom operators to extend the retention period for telephone data from three months to a year.

France's Dominique de Villepin said that each of the five would apply the measures immediately, and that they would be discussed with the remaining EU members.

The central objective of the summit was to implement the "principle of availability" (see Statewatch for further information on this) which means that data held by one country is automatically available to its partners. According to the summit statement the objective is "to make sure that the police forces of the Group of Five countries should have immediate access to the information that they need and which other members possess."

The five appear to intend to implement higher levels of information exchange in advance of the EU as a whole, and will set up networks to share information on suspects (Spain gave the example of "people who have attended jihadist training camps"), stolen explosives, stolen cars and false identity papers. Also to be shared are fingerprint and DNA databases. The UK currently has one of the largest DNA databases in the world, and it is growing fast.

The co-operation on the Internet will undoubtedly mean more widespread surveillance of Internet activities, but it could also make life more difficult for fringe and radical web operations. The UK now has a broad range of offences covering support for terrorism including, in the recent Prevention of Terrorism Act, "encouragement" for "acts of terrorism generally", while a draft of a Council of Ministers Convention on Terrorism suggests that "'public provocation to commit an act of terrorism' means the distribution, or otherwise making available, of a message to the public, with the intent to incite the commission of an act of terrorism, including where the message, although not directly advocating such acts, would be reasonably interpreted to have that effect, inter alia, by presenting an act of terrorism as necessary and justified."

Offences in this territory already exist in many EU states, but closer co-operation will make it easier for, say, the Italian Government to have the UK Government act against a site in the UK. Action could be taken in one country could be taken on the basis of a particularly broad view of what constitutes "incitement" or "apologie du terrorisme" in another, and its perfectly possible that inconvenient critics could find themselves targeted alongside genuine terrorist propagandists or supporters. Whatever these might be. ®

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