Met Police take down protest advice blog

A website that offered advice to protesters has been shut down at the behest of the Metropolitan Police, prompting criticism from a legal human rights organisation.The Fitwatch website was taken offline on Monday by hosting company JustHost.

A website that offered advice to protesters has been shut down at the behest of the Metropolitan Police, prompting criticism from a legal human rights organisation.

The Fitwatch website was taken offline on Monday by hosting company JustHost.com, after the firm received a letter from police.

Fitwatch administrator Emily Apple said in a Guardian blog post on Tuesday that the police had requested the website be taken offline as it was "attempting to pervert the course of justice".

Apple said that a Fitwatch blog post had prompted the police action. The blog post offered advice to students involved in protests against tuition fee rises at Millbank Tower on Wednesday last week, which resulted in smashed windows, and a fire extinguisher being thrown from a roof. Millbank houses the Conservative Party headquarters.

The blog post, which was reprinted on a number of sites, recommended that students who were at the protests and were worried about being identified by police should consider changing their appearance.

"Perhaps now is a good time for a make-over," said the blog post. "Get a haircut and colour, grow a beard, wear glasses. It isn't a guarantee, but may help throw them off the scent."

The website was closed down after a letter was sent to JustHost.com by the Police Central eCrime Unit (PCeU), according to the Guardian. The letter was signed by Will Hodgeson, an acting member of CO11, the Metropolitan Police public order branch.

Detective superintendent Charlie McMurdie of PCeU told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that PCeU had liaised with CO11 about the protests, but declined to comment further.

"We were engaging with our public order department [about the protests]," said McMurdie.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman said in a statement that the police had requested that JustHost.com take Fitwatch down.

"We were concerned this website was giving information about destroying evidence," said the spokesman. "We drew this to the attention of the internet infrastructure providers and they suspended the site."

Legal human rights group Justice told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the police action appeared to be disproportionate.

"I would have thought [the police] would need a court order," said Justice human rights policy director Eric Metcalfe. "Police would have to show specific criminal activity to remove the website as a whole."

Metcalfe said that the police have a general power to order the removal of content from the internet that encourages criminality, such as bomb-making instructions. However, advice given to protesters about civil disobedience does not normally fall into this category, said Metcalfe.

"If the website is saying, if you commit a crime, don't get caught, that's free speech," said Metcalfe. "It isn't unlawful to express an opinion." Depending on interpretation, specific advice to destroy clothing in relation to a violent offence may be a different matter, Metcalfe said.

The legal expert said that Fitwatch's aim appeared to be to frustrate police operations, and that this in itself was not unlawful.

"It's not the business of the police to take down a website just because it frustrates their activities," said Metcalfe. "The general charge of 'perverting the course of justice' is disproportionate. The effect is expedient for police &mdash it gets rid of a website that makes the police's job difficult."

JustHost.com had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

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