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MPs urge ISPs to take down terrorist material

The Home Affairs Committee has called for an ISP code of conduct 'committing them to removing violent extremist material', although it is unclear whether they mean 'hosting providers' rather than ISPs
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

ISPs should commit themselves to taking down terrorist material from websites, an influential parliamentary committee has said.

In a report published on Monday, the Home Affairs Committee said the internet plays a key role in promoting violent radicalism, with more of an influence than campaigns in universities and prisons. The report examined the "roots of violent radicalisation", covering not only Islamic efforts in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings, but also the growth from far-right groups.

"We suggest that the government work with internet service providers in the UK to develop a code of conduct committing them to removing violent extremist material, as defined for the purposes of section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2006," the committee said in the report. "Many relevant websites are hosted abroad: the government should also therefore strive towards greater international cooperation to tackle this issue."

However, ISPs are not generally in a position to remove content from websites, which is more the role of hosting providers. Asked about this discrepancy, a spokesman for the committee was unable to explain how the MPs envisaged the takedown working.

At the moment, ISPs have a responsive rather than an active role, and will take down extremist content in reponse to requests from police under section 3 of the Terrorism Act. While the MPs did not suggest a change in approach in their report, they did do so in a statement released on Monday.

"Although there are statutory powers under the Terrorism Act 2006 for law enforcement agencies to order unlawful material to be removed from the internet, the committee recommends that internet service providers themselves should be more active in monitoring the material they host, with appropriate guidance, advice and support from the government," the committee said.

In the report, however, the MPs quote evidence from the ISP Association (ISPA) saying active network monitoring would be undesirable in terms of free expression, and impractical given the volume of online material.

ISPA welcomed the report, "in particular the call for greater international cooperation", as this means going for the source of offensive material rather than trying to block it at the network level, a spokesman for the trade association told ZDNet UK.

"We support Section 3 notices because ISPs aren't being asked to make the judgement call as to what and what isn't violent extremist material," he said, noting that Section 3 "hasn't been used very much, if at all, since [the Terrorism Act 2006] was passed".

"Given that there's legislation, I'm not sure why there is a need for a code of practice," the ISPA spokesmand added.

Internet role

According to the report, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) gave evidence that the internet features in most, if not all, "routes of radicalisation".

"The conviction last week of four men from London and Cardiff radicalised over the internet, for a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange and launch a Mumbai-style atrocity on the streets of London, shows that we cannot let our vigilance slip," committee chair Keith Vaz MP said in the committee's statement.

"More resources need to be directed to these threats and to preventing radicalisation through the internet and in private spaces. These are the fertile breeding grounds for terrorism," he added.

The Home Office has stated that the internet plays a role in sustaining and reinforcing terrorist ideological messages, and allowing people to find and communicate with like-minded individuals and groups.

However, the committee pointed out that recent Home Office-commissioned research contradicted this finding. It noted that the internet "does not appear to play a significant role in Al Qa'ida-influenced radicalisation". Most witnesses to the committee agreed that radicalisation almost never takes place without face-to-face contact.

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