Openness is our best defence

The police want greater powers to close down or force open Net activities that support terrorism. Such ideas may be more counterproductive than counterterrorist

We are now becoming used to the idea that phone records, hard disks and Internet logs are major components in the fight against terrorism. Now, though, the police want tighter control and more power over the Internet itself, to explicitly criminalise activities at the periphery of crime. Web sites must be shut down, they say, and information opened up.

The Internet videos distributed by the supporters of terrorism are deftly made with high production values and chilling content — fanaticism for the MTV generation. There's little doubt that they'd fall under the proposed new law banning use of the Internet to "prepare acts of terrorism", as they provide both practical and psychological support for those so minded. But making their possession or acquisition a crime wouldn't stop their distribution and would only heighten their effectiveness.

It would also prevent the rest of us from seeing at first hand the motivations and methods behind the madness: an enemy that cannot be understood is twice as terrifying, and in a democracy we have a duty to find out and make up our own minds about things that affect us so deeply. Meanwhile, a huge grey area would open up — what is a terrorist? When does contemplation stop and preparation start? — which would do no good for the perception of British law as fair and equitable.

Likewise, the crime of refusing to divulge encryption keys would seem unlikely to help, unless the punishment is so draconian as to be unfair in most circumstances. If the suspect is hiding evidence of serious crimes, then the threat of being charged with anything less isn't going to move them. Instead, the new crime will be used by police on fishing expeditions — better let us see your hard disk, chum, or you're in deep trouble.

Crimes of savagery are rarely best answered with more laws. Those that are proposed should be tested against some simple questions: how would they have helped this time, how easy would they be to circumvent, how might they be abused in the future and how might existing laws be better used?

There is no doubt that IT and the Internet will continue to be of major importance to investigators and perpetrators of terrorism. That cannot be allowed to define how the rest of us use the technology, or to create an online world where typing in the wrong URL becomes a crime. Watchfulness is the key, not ever more heavy-handed attempts at control.

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