Guest blog post by John J. Martin, Global Transparency Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John earned his BA in International Relations from New York University.
A century after the words were first uttered by Winston Churchill, ‘business as usual’ does not appear to be on the agenda of British Prime Minister Theresa May. Following the rise of terrorist attacks in Western Europe, and further exacerbated by the recent tragedies in Manchester and London, May introduced last month a variety of authoritative, “pro-security” legislation meant to combat violent extremism. Plans to control and regulate internet in the United Kingdom at unprecedented levels are among such policies. Should this legislation come to pass, parliament would be able to essentially govern what can and cannot be stated or read online by the British people. May believes this would lead to successful preventative measures against the spread of hateful ideology among young people, and would therefore make the UK safer as a country. This strategy is both disturbing and miscalculated. Not only does it represent a massive curtailing of civil liberties, but it could ultimately render the UK less secure due to its misguided focus and signified defeatism.
The 2017 Conservative Manifesto asserts that the UK “must take steps to protect the vulnerable and give people confidence to use the internet without fear of abuse, criminality or exposure to horrific content.” What are these steps May and the Conservative Party, the centre-right and current governing political party of the UK, plan to take? One goal seems to be to target and block any webpage that contains content Conservatives deem to be hateful, violent, or overly vulgar. The manifesto suggests that search engine companies such as Google would be required to redirect any user trying to search for information or materials considered illicit by the government.
The Conservatives have also put forth legislation known as the Draft Communications Data Bill that would require internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile phone companies to maintain records of each user’s internet browsing activity and email correspondence. May stated she hopes these new rules for cyberspace would “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” by either dissuading their online activities or making them more detectable to UK authorities.
These proposed actions would constitute a major violation of British citizens’ privacy. The European Court of Justice already ruled the UK’s current surveillance programs to be illegal last year, claiming it went against the tenets of a democracy. When a society establishes a dynamic where the government’s information is deemed private by law but the common person’s information is treated as a resource accessible at the government’s demand, it becomes difficult to regard that society as a one ruled by the public.
The ability to freely access information would also very likely be further restricted for the British public, especially if certain online searches become blocked. Algorithms are not infallible, and seemingly harmless searches will undoubtedly become caught in whatever filter is put in place. The UK government already managed to block many legal, non-adult websites, including feminist blogs and conservative media outlets, due to filters it mandated ISPs to implement in 2014. One-fifth of all websites were made inaccessible to the British public because of this move.
Even if a particular search remains permissible after May’s proposed changes, the fear of being branded a terrorist by the government could cause innocent people to become more cautious about their online queries. If one googles “terrorism” and “Islam” in the same sentence, will they become targeted by the intelligence community? This question is not too farfetched considering over one million people have managed to be placed on the terrorist watch list in the United States, a direct result of overly invasive surveillance and broad criteria for what makes a person “suspicious.” The paranoia that stems from such a system often makes people feel less secure rather than more.
Conservatives will argue that some sacrifices of civil liberties are necessary for society to function free of violent radicalism. However, May’s proposed internet regulations may only further threaten national security in the UK. With stricter filters and surveillance, terrorist recruiters will end up relying more on the deep web, areas of the internet not indexed by any search engine, which can make them more difficult to detect. Responding to the recent attacks by limiting rights also signals to terrorists that they wield influence. The UK government should not be letting these extremists redefine freedom of speech and privacy for the British people. Because if the British are not allowed to continue their lives ‘business as usual’ due to these assaults, terrorists will feel emboldened and encouraged to continue them.
Above all, these regulations are attacking merely one symptom of radicalization. Many terrorist experts have agreed that May’s plan places unjust blame on the internet. Terrorism existed in the UK long before online communication was available (e.g. the Irish Republican Army), and the UK went a decade between 2006 and 2016 with very few fatalities resulting from terrorist attacks (some years as low as zero), indicating that unrestricted internet and security can coexist in the country. Furthermore, political scientist Olivier Roy finds that the spread of violent ideology is mainly a youth movement built upon isolation and resentment toward society, making radicalization more of a mental health issue than a technological one. The UK might then benefit more from de-radicalization programs, such as those in Denmark, which would confront the issue at its actual source.
Perhaps the Conservatives know this, and these regulations are simply a political move to bolster the party’s ‘tough on terrorism’ image. If so, the 2017 Parliamentary election results should indicate that the British people are not too keen on such policies. But if May truly believes restricting freedom on the internet is a legitimate method to combat this year’s rise of violence within her country, she is both abandoning the proud stoic tradition of the British people and placing the UK at greater risk of attack in the future.