Home Office sets out plan to block websites

Home Office sets out plan to block websites

Summary: The government is considering plans for the web blocking of certain sites, such as those dedicated to Islamic fundamentalism, on state-funded networks

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The government is considering a national blocklist to prevent people in state-funded networks from accessing websites that promote Islamic fundamentalism and other extremist views.

Theresa May

Theresa May has said the government is considering plans for the web blocking of certain sites on state-funded networks. Photo credit: Home Office

The measure is designed to restrict access to websites that contain unlawful material, as part of the government's counter-terrorism strategy, home secretary Theresa May said on Tuesday.

"Intelligence indicates that the UK faces a serious and sustained threat from terrorism," May told the House of Commons. "To tackle that threat... we must not only arrest and prosecute those who breach the law, but we must stop people being drawn into terrorist-related activity in the first place."

The web-filtering measures are part of the government's updated Prevent counter-terrorism strategy (PDF), which the Home Office launched on Tuesday. The government wants to prevent people in schools, colleges and libraries from accessing unlawful content as part of the strategy.

"Internet filtering across the public estate is essential," the Home Office said in the strategy paper. "We want to ensure that users in schools, libraries, colleges and immigration removal centres are unable to access unlawful material.

"We want to explore the potential for violent and unlawful URL lists to be voluntarily incorporated into independent national blocking lists, including the list operated by the Internet Watch Foundation," it continued.

Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit

In addition, the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), a police unit that researches internet-based content, will be able to play a significant role in developing the unlawful URL-blocking list, the Home Office said.

The government wants to have a filtering product rolled out across departments, agencies and statutory organisations, and to be able to determine the extent of effective filtering in schools and public libraries.

The Internet Watch Foundation, a private organisation that operates a voluntary blocklist designed to combat child pornography, told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that it currently operates under a narrow remit.

"Our remit is very strict," an IWF spokeswoman said. "If there were to be any change, it would be for our founders and board [to decide]."

Legal oversight

There are potential problems with the government's web-blocking plans, argued privacy campaigner Alex Hanff. A lack of legal oversight could lead to innocent websites being blocked, Hanff told ZDNet UK on Wednesday.

Any situation where any blocklist is imposed on the public should be imposed through the courts. This shouldn't be done by a civil servant somewhere.

– Alex Hanff

"Any situation where any blocklist is imposed on the public should be imposed through the courts," said Hanff. "This shouldn't be done by a civil servant somewhere."

There is a problem of false positives, where swathes of websites hosted on the same servers could be blocked, according to Hanff. In addition, terrorists could be driven further underground, and use encrypted networks and darknets that are difficult to block.

A number of countries use national web-filtering technologies, including the People's Republic of China. Chinese authorities use internet filtering, or the 'Great Firewall of China', to prevent access to content the government finds objectionable. In addition, Green Dam content-control software was originally mandatory for Chinese schools, internet cafes and other public computers, before being scaled back in scope.

The Australian government is currently considering the mandatory filtering of all web content, to prevent access to content such as porn. A draft law has met with considerable resistance from a number of groups, including the Anonymous group. The UK government is considering blocking such adult content, which users would have to opt in to access.


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Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com. He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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