HOME AFFAIRS – TERRORISM ON THE INTERNET – 15 February 2006

Dr Julian Lewis: The policemen who undertake such work [locating Internet material which encourages terrorism and notifying Internet Service Providers] will be specialists, if only in linguistics, because much of the material will probably be in a foreign language. However, what would happen if something were posted on the web that genuinely quoted inflammatory material, perhaps to criticise it? On the other hand, to get round the law, a posting could quote inflammatory material and pretend to criticise it but, in fact, be seeking to propagate it.

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Dr Lewis: When service providers are informed about such a notification [that material which encourages terrorism should be removed], will there not be a temptation on their part, assuming that they are just business men and women and non-ideological, to say, "Whenever we get a take-down notice, we will automatically comply. What's in it for us to resist it?", and will not the effect of the policy applied across the board be that all the websites will quickly find internet service providers abroad and the whole issue will become rather nugatory?

[The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears):  I do not accept the Hon. Gentleman's premise that because there might be consequences, we should not try to limit the kind of information that is available. ... If, through the process, we can limit the amount of material that could be used to encourage people to engage in terrorist acts, it is a process worth adopting. I do not believe that the automatic response from providers will be to remove information.]

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Dr Lewis rose

[Ms Blears: ... I always respect the views of the Hon. Gentleman, so I give way.]

Dr Lewis: I am being persistent about the matter because I was one of the first people to issue a writ against an internet service provider for defamatory material. That is analogous to the position that we are discussing. The effect was instantaneous: the material was removed and promptly reappeared on the site of a foreign Internet service provider. However, the Minister could consider a positive action – perhaps she has already considered it – that is more than the empty gesture that she is making. What is she doing about search engines? The danger of such material is not so much the people who know which websites to look for because they are already hooked, but those who enter terms into a search engine such as Google, which, as we know, is capable of deciding what it will produce if hit. Action on search engines would be of more practical value than what she is proposing today.

[Ms Blears: My decision to give way to the Hon. Gentleman is vindicated. As ever, he has knowledge and experience of such matters and makes a practical suggestion. I do not accept that our proposal is a gesture. I believe that it will have an impact on reducing the available material. However, I should like to investigate whether we could consider action – not necessarily in the Bill – to cover people who perhaps inadvertently go on to such websites and those who positively search for them. The Hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.]

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[Mr Ben Wallace: ... The Bill talks about a "constable", meaning a member of the mainstream special branch, but my experience is that that person will soon be merely a liaison officer attached to special branch, and then an ordinary constable who is asked to assist in a case. Inappropriate allocation of police officers to such tasks can lead to the sort of extreme events that we saw with the Manchester ricin plot. In that case, the wrong type of officer was deployed in the wrong job, and lives were placed in extreme danger ... What will be the cost of the extra training for some officers? Why do the Government believe that the Bill should speak so loosely of a "constable", without offering a closer definition of the expertise required? Why is the Minister not happy with GCHQ, the agency that does the job at the moment? It has linguists, and its intercept knowledge goes far deeper than that of the police force. Does not GCHQ represent the best way to go about these matters, in conjunction with a judicial appeal?]

Dr Lewis: My Hon. Friend's suggestion has the additional practical advantage that it meets the point made by the Labour Back Bencher who spoke about those occasions when the Intelligence Services will want to track who is accessing sites. As part of the Intelligence network, GCHQ will be able to make a balanced decision about when to take a site down and when it might be advantageous to keep it up for Intelligence purposes.