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The police are WRONG: Watching YouTube videos is NOT illegal

And our man Corfield is pretty bloody cross about it

Some of you may already be familiar with our sub-editor Gareth Corfield's work as he is usually the man behind our social-media presence.

You. Yes, you. Reading this now. You're reading this on a website where potential TERRORISTS operate. Aren't you scared? Why haven't you clicked away? You support this form of terrorism, don't you, you evil human being.

The above is what the Metropolitan Police would have you believe about El Reg, after police press officers claimed last week that watching the video of US photojournalist James Foley being murdered by an Islamic extremist could be a crime.

A statement issued by the London police force late on Wednesday said:

We would like to remind the public that viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation.

People reacted with bewilderment and confusion. El Reg's own Jasper Hamill phoned the police, confessed that he'd watched the video of Foley's murder (for this article on how social networks are - rightly, in Vulture Central's view - deleting it) and he asked, am I a terrorist now?

The police response was instructive. According to the fuzz, anyone caught watching such videos will not be arrested for that alone - but the police would definitely use that information against them if they got the chance.

Fine, but exactly what law would watching a YouTube video infringe?

That same question went through the mind of lawyer David Allen Green. He also phoned the Met Police press office and asked the duty PR operative exactly what law people viewing the video would have broken.

Tl;dr, the Met couldn't answer. They couldn't answer because there is no criminal offence of watching videos. Although the police PR department hopefully mumbled about “terrorism” laws, the nearest interested observers could get was Sections 1 and 2 of the Terrorism Act 2006. Careful readers of those two sections will see that the relevant offences all require intent. To pick section 2(2):

For the purposes of this section a person engages in conduct falling within this subsection if he—

(a) distributes or circulates a terrorist publication;

(b) gives, sells or lends such a publication;

(c) offers such a publication for sale or loan;

(d) provides a service to others that enables them to obtain, read, listen to or look at such a publication, or to acquire it by means of a gift, sale or loan;

(e) transmits the contents of such a publication electronically; or

(f) has such a publication in his possession with a view to its becoming the subject of conduct falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (e).

I can't see anything in there that would make it a criminal offence to click on a YouTube link and watch a video, provided you didn't share it with others. If you can see a criminal offence of watching a video, by all means get stuck into the comments section and tell us.

The original police statement might, as some have speculated, have been a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to reduce the amount of traffic to the video, either for moral reasons or to enable inbound traffic to be screened for potential jihadis by GCHQ's snoopers. Except, as we know from the Snowden revelations, GCHQ treats everyone with equal suspicion and snoops on all of our comunications equally; we've all been potential terrorists, in the eyes of the state, since the turn of the millennium.

<Opinion>

I favour an alternative explanation: that the British police now truly believe they have the right to state that something's illegal even when that's not the case: "So what if it's not against the law, you shouldn't be doing it anyway." This attitude of "we know best, to hell with laws and rules" trickles down from the very top of government. Look at how Theresa May rushed new laws through Parliament to legalise indiscriminate mass surveillance by GCHQ and others after the EU declared it was unlawful.

That isn't the action of someone who abides by the rule of law. That's what you do when you're a power-crazed bully who won't take no for an answer. Thankfully at least two MPs are mounting a legal challenge against May's dash for fresh surveillance powers over innocent members of the public.

Green neatly summarised what went wrong here in his verdict on the police press officers' actions (£) in the Financial Times:

People need reliable and accurate public information, and they have the right to expect it from the well-funded PR departments of UK police forces. If a police force tells people something is against the law then it should be able to instantly say on demand what the law is. The law should not be made up by press officers as they go along.

If it wasn't for determined scrutiny of the police by people like El Reg's own Jasper Hamill, as well as Green, many members of the public would falsely think that watching a video is illegal. Don't get me wrong, it's a horrible piece of footage and I certainly don't recommend you watch it - but you'd still think it was actually a crime to to do, all because a police press officer wanted to grab the headlines and wouldn't back down when asked to justify himself.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? ®

Bootnote

Jasper Hamill is now known as "Jihadi Hamill" or just "Jihamill" around the office. -Ed

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