Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/01/17/home_office_smith_speech_web_terror_crackdown_insanity/

Home Sec in anti-terror plan to control entire web

'I will remove illegal material from internet'

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 17th January 2008 14:37 GMT

UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has decided to mount a push against cyber terror, in which the internet itself will somehow be modified to prevent people using it for terrorist purposes.

Today, Ms Smith addressed an international conference on radicalisation and political violence. Much of the speech was about engagement with the Muslim community, preventing the use of schools and prisons for jihadi propaganda etc. There was also some suggestion that "dirty bombs" are jolly dangerous, and that this shows how serious the domestic terror threat is*.

However, the Home Secretary also reiterated the Brown government's promise of technical measures against web terror:

The internet is a key tool for the propagandists for violent extremism... Let me be clear. The internet is not a no-go area for Government.

We are already working closely with the communications industry to take action against paedophiles... we should also take action against those who groom vulnerable people for the purposes of violent extremism... I will be talking to industry... about how best to do this.

Where there is illegal material on the net, I want it removed.

The government's moves still appear to be focused more on perception than action. Yesterday, UK media outlets - for instance the Times, the BBC and the Daily Mail - obligingly rehashed the old, not-very-terrifying case of Younes Tsouli (aka "Terrorist 007") the most fearsome web terror mastermind yet snared, despite the complete absence of any new revelations. Only a cynic would suspect that Home Office briefers were behind the sudden news-free flood of web terror ink.

Today, Ms Smith followed in the less-than-illustrious footsteps of EC vice-president Franco Frattini and indeed her political master Gordon Brown.

Frattini memorably said last year that: "It should simply not be possible to leave people free to instruct other people on the internet on how to make a bomb." He reportedly planned to prevent this by unspecified actions at the level of European ISPs.

Brown went down a similar route in November, saying: "The Home Secretary is inviting the largest global technology and internet companies to work together to ensure that our best technical expertise is galvanised to counter online incitement to hatred." This turned out - thus far, anyway - to be no more than political posturing for the technically challenged, however.

UK internet service provider group ISPA confirmed to the Reg today that it still hadn't heard anything from the government regarding the web terror crackdown. It had asked for a meeting following the Brown speech, but so far has heard nothing.

An ISPA spokesman added: "It is important to note that many of these sites are hosted overseas... there is a working takedown procedure but censorship is the remit of the government not of industry."

The industry spokesman added that the government should "bear in mind that the internet is not the only place for this activity".

In the UK, much of the net backbone is actually controlled by just one company, British Telecom. Asked today if the company had been approached by government specifically in its role as an infrastructure provider - rather than a consumer ISP - a spokesman confirmed: "We have had discussions with the Home Office... no measures have been taken."

Many British ISPs do no more than resell BT's wholesale products, and even those offering local-loop-unbundled services are typically dependent on BT for other parts of their networks. If you want to start censoring the UK segment of the internet, BT is the company to talk to.

The company added that any new action "would need to be underpinned by appropriate legislation... sites would need to be monitored by law enforcement or an independent body. It is not our job to police the internet".

It remains very hard to see what the government can really do to prevent the dissemination of bomb-making instructions, propaganda, and such like. BT and the ISPs could block overseas websites, but almost certainly not as fast as they could be put up. Interesting stuff tends to be mirrored very fast, too; and it isn't hard to use relays such as Tor to effectively browse from a point overseas.

No machinery under the UK government's control needs to see anything other than a stream of encrypted traffic in order for a user located in Britain to merrily enter hardcore terrorist chatrooms, download bomb-making instructions, coordinate operations and all the rest.

Of course, real-world terrorists seldom exhibit even the very basic technical competence necessary to do this - or even bother to do a google search on "fuel-air explosion", for God's sake.

So, we've basically got two ways this could go.

One, the Brown cabinet are just grandstanding to technically ignorant voters. They won't do anything, safe in the knowledge that those voters will never realise this.

Or, two, the government actually plans to build a Chinese-style Great Firewall of Blighty which will prevent anyone looking at anything which says "jihadi" or "bomb" or "TATP" (whoops) etc. You'll probably be able to get round it if you know what you're doing, but it will be at the cost of slow, intermittent connections and possible, lengthy terror-powers detention without charge.

Let's hope they're just bullshitting. ®

Bootnote

*The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that: "Most [dirty bombs] would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness... However, depending on the scenario, a [dirty bomb] explosion could create fear and panic. Making prompt, accurate information available to the public could prevent the panic sought by terrorists."

Or, alternatively, you could tell people that the fact of a fool having dirty-bomb plans on his computer means he is a danger to us all.