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MPs rattle telcos to help kill extremist material online

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Update Internet service providers must do better at removing violent material from websites, a group of MPs thundered today.

The Home Affairs select committee published a report this morning that highlighted how extremist groups and individuals use the internet "to promote violent radicalism".

MPs were told by a series of witnesses that the internet was the main forum for radicalisation, and added that concerns have been expressed about there being so many "unregulated spaces" online.

"The committee concludes that the internet is one of the most significant vehicles for promoting violent radicalism - more so than prisons, universities or places of worship, although direct, personal contact with radicals is in many cases also a significant factor," it said.

"Although there are statutory powers under the Terrorism Act 2006 for law enforcement agencies to order unlawful material to be removed from the internet, the committee recommends that internet service providers themselves should be more active in monitoring the material they host, with appropriate guidance, advice and support from the government."

The politicos called on the Coalition to cobble together a code of practice to get telcos to voluntarily participate in removing violent extremist material from the internet.

In evidence submitted to the home affairs committee, the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) noted that: "As in other areas, ISPs are 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 ISPA argued that if the police do not intervene using their statutory powers under the Terrorism Act, it would be much more difficult for a telco to make an appropriate judgment about the content being hosted online. Moreover, many of the websites that carry extremist material are hosted abroad.

The committee of MPs who scrutinised the government's so-called 'Prevent' strategy concluded that it was impossible to cleanse the internet of such content.

The whole area of communications technology and social networking is complex and extremely fast-moving. A form of interaction that is commonly used by thousands or even millions of people at one point in time may only have been developed a matter of months or even weeks earlier.

It follows that legislation and regulation struggle to keep up and can provide a blunt instrument at best. Leaders in fields such as education, the law and Parliament also need to be involved.

Evidence taken by this committee in regard to the riots in London last August showed that some police forces have identified social networks as providing both challenges and opportunities, with the message from one chief constable that the police recognised that 'we need to be engaged'.

In respect of terrorism, as in respect of organised crime, the government should seek to build on the partnership approach to prevention that has proved successful in the field of child abuse and child protection.

The Register asked the UK's four major ISPs - BT, Virgin Media, BSkyB and TalkTalk - to comment on the home affairs' committee report.

BT told us:

BT complies with all legislation applying to its activities and co-operates fully with law enforcement agencies as appropriate in relation relevant legislation.

The 2006 Terrorism Act created several new offences of relevance to online content, under which we operate a takedown policy for websites when required to do so. The law enforcement agencies determine what content falls within the Act and notify us through the appropriate single point of contact arrangements with them.

ISPs are not in a position to make legal judgements on what constitutes terrorism, extremism or radicalisation.

It is not for ISPs to proactively monitor material available on line. There are privacy and freedom of expression implications as well as the more practical consideration of the sheer volume of content online.The current approach of notice and takedown, which takes place within the legislative framework (with auditing and oversight), is the most effective and practical solution.

Virgin Media said it was "preparing a statement".

Meanwhile, MP Keith Vaz, who is chairman of the committee, said: "The conviction last week of four men from London and Cardiff radicalised over the internet, for a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange and launch a Mumbai-style atrocity on the streets of London, shows that we cannot let our vigilance slip.

"More resources need to be directed to these threats and to preventing radicalisation through the internet and in private spaces. These are the fertile breeding grounds for terrorism."

The MPs also recommended that the government rename its 'Prevent' strategy as something a good deal fluffier "to reflect a positive approach to collaboration with the Muslim communities of the UK". The moniker 'Engage' was recommended. ®

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