Who decides what we can read?

commons daySpeaking at the Internet Service Providers Association, Security Minister James Brokenshire said that an announcement on blocking extremist websites is ‘forthcoming.’

This follows the Prime Minister telling Parliament on October 23 that: “We have had repeated meetings of the extremism task force — it met again yesterday — setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites.”

Such an announcement has not been preceded by a public consultation, or any engagement with civil liberties and freedom of speech organisations. The threat the freedom of speech is only too clear.

As we have previously warned around the shift of the child safety debate from illegal content to legal content, there is a danger that politicial figurues become embroiled in deciding what we can and cannot see online. The starting point should be if material meets a criminal threshold, can those involved be prosecuted. Blocking must never become an easier alternative to prosecution.

While putting in place legal powers to block illegal content is not new, the focus must be on due process and a clear legal framework. It must not be in the gift of civil servants or officials to decide if content is considered extremist and then legal powers being used to compel UK internet service providers to block such conent.

We oppose state regulation of the press and we oppose state regulation of the internet. Where laws have been broken, people should be prosecuted. If content is alleged to break the law then a court should decide if that is the case. More importantly, Parliament should establish a clear and unambiguous framework for the circumstances in which such powers can be used, opportunities for redress and putting in place robust legal safeguards.

Given that the police maintain a secretive ‘national extremist database‘ of protestors and activists many of whom have no national security relevance, it is not hard to see how these powers could quickly be used to block content that is far from criminal.

Any such framework must mean a court order being obtained for each specific URL – and blocks not being implemented where legal content would also be blocked as a result. This must not be a voluntary arrangement with ISPs.

Governments around the world will leap upon any perception that Britain is using terrorism legislation to stifle freedom of speech. Business will lose confidence in our digital economy if legitimate websites are blocked. Politicians and civil servants must never make the decisions about what is blocked.