Should governments block websites that spread hardline ideology but don’t explicitly advocate violence—like the ones likely read by the Tsarnaev brothers, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, or the two men being held for allegedly attacking a British soldier in Woolrich?
 
This is an idea that Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, has floated in the wake of the fatal knife and machete attack earlier this month on off-duty soldier Lee Rigby, and it’s an idea under serious consideration by a task force headed by Prime Minister David Cameron. 

“There is no doubt that people are able to watch things through the Internet which can lead to radicalization,” May told the BBC in an interview this week.  ”We need to see if we should be doing more; we need to see if there are additional steps we should be taking to prevent radicalization.”

Her suggested remedy is a three-pronged approach: ban more organizations and Muslim schools that the government believes are inciting hate; block extremist websites, and revive the Communications Data Bill, which would which would require Internet service providers and mobile companies to keep records of every user’s browsing activities, email correspondences, and texts for 12 months. Phone companies in the UK already are required to retain email and telephone contact data. 

Some filters against extremist websites have been in place since 2010, May told the BBC. Since then, police have gotten more than 5,500 postings deleted from the Internet, she added. Police and governments routinely request that Internet companies and Web hosts take down, block, or filter content they deem to be offensive or illegal. Companies can voluntarily comply or wait for a court order to do so. 

Now May would like to examine whether officials should have broader power to demand that content be removed. 

Home Office spokeswoman Sally Henfield said in a telephone interview that the examination will be part of the government’s Extremist and Radicalization Task Force, established this week in the aftermath of the Woolwich stabbing. Further details have yet to be decided.  

The conservative government’s coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, said that in the wake of the Woolwich murder, they would agree to some parts of the draft Communications Data Bill, which they blocked in April over privacy concerns. 

Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the Telegraph this week that the coalition needed to support security services when they say they need more power to monitor suspects. 

Some countries, like the US and UK, protect hate speech unless the speech actually incites imminent violence. Others, like Germany and Austria, restrict some speech under certain circumstances. Those two countries forbid not only denying the Holocaust, but also hate speech that instigates violence or demeans the value of groups in a way that “can disturb the public peace.” This is what May appears to be proposing now in the UK, even though nowadays, neo-Nazis based in Germany and Austria can just run their websites through countries, like the US, that do not restrict speech. 

It can be hard to distinguish between hate speech and speech that is merely offensive. There are no agreed-upon international definitions. Facebook recently changed its policy on hate speech to be more responsive to complaints about pages that appear to condone violence against women. 
Online companies and ISPs routinely are asked by governments and individual users to block sites or specific pages. While most takedowns are due to alleged copyright infringements, they are also asked to censor other forms of speech that may be controversial but not meet a strong definition of hate speech.

In its Transparency Report, Google said that last year it had followed all 20 requests from the UK government or police to take down 75 sites due to national security issues. In addition, it blocked one YouTube video at the government’s request due to hate speech.

Marco Pancini, senior policy counsel at Google, told a conference in Vienna in February that Google found it to be “very delicate work” to find the right way to avoid abuses of free speech by governments and private users, and he called for an open debate on how to tackle the challenges. 

“We don’t want to be left alone in taking action because we don’t believe in… simply leaving it to trust,” he said. “It is not the role of the intermediaries to be judge and jury. It’s to empower people to express themselves.” 

Meanwhile, in April, the Web’s five largest Internet companies—Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Yahoo—delivered a thinly veiled warning to Theresa May that they will not voluntarily cooperate with the Communications Data Act, dubbed “snooper’s charter” by the UK press.

In a letter leaked this week to the Guardian, the Web giants said May’s proposals would be “expensive to implement and highly contentious.”

May’s comments have provoked a fierce free-speech debate. “Generalised pre-censorship of ‘disgusting views’ at the behest of an interior minister would start us down a very slippery slope,” Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a Guardian commentary. “To entrust our freedom of expression to the Home Office is like putting your aching tooth in the tender care of a road-mender wielding a waist-high pneumatic drill.”

Tim Stevens, the coauthor of a 2009 study into countering online radicalization, told the Guardian that any strategy that relies on restricting online content alone was bound to be expensive and counterproductive. 

“Anyone who knows anything about the Internet knows that [even if] you take something off the Internet, [it] is likely to be back on it again within an hour, or downloaded onto hard drives,”said Stevens. 

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.