A meeting of EU interior ministers held in August in the wake of the 'liquid bomb plot' arrests called for the acceleration of European plans to tackle terrorism, and as part of these, for measures to "tackle the use of the Internet by terrorists to radicalise young people, spread messages of hate and plan mass murder" (see Home Office announcement). Ah yes, but how?
Speaking after the meeting Franco Frattini, Justice & Home Affairs Commissioner, said that the Internet should be made a "hostile environment" for terrorists. "I think it's very important to explore further possibilities of blocking websites that incite to commit terrorist actions," The Times reported. Yes Franco, but how do you propose to do that, exactly? Or even approximately?
After the August meeting Spy Blog wrote to Frattini asking for details of what he was proposing, and putting forward a detailed list of 17 questions covering consultation, mechanisms, definitions, distinctions and safeguards. Spy Blog now has a response from Jonathan Faull, EU Commission Director General for Justice, Freedom and Security, but although lengthy, the document sheds little or no light on the matter.
Essentially, the Commission seems to know approximately what it wants to do, to have barely the vaguest of notions how to go about doing it, but to be exceedingly keen to assure people that it won't do anything that is in conflict with the principles of the European Union. Take question one, for example, "Are you proposing a European Union version of the national level firewall content filtering and censorware software such as is used in the 'Great firewall of China' or in Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes?"
Faull responds with a refrain that will become tedious well before question 17. "At such an early stage of our consultations it would be premature to speak about a specific solution... [so ominously, perhaps we're not altogether ruling that one out]... the European Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. In consequence, policy options undermining such principles will be necessarily ruled out."
Relieved? We know we were. So even if Europe does build a Great Firewall it won't be one that undermines our basic principles, right...
Question two then, "Are you proposing to ban websites in the United States of America, such as Yahoo Groups of the Google search engine cache? This is where the vast majority of home made bomb making instructions are written and published on the Internet?" A good question, says Faull, confirming that much of the material in question is hosted outside of European jurisdiction, and adding that "a particular web site may contain both legitimate content and content aiding or abetting terrorism. Such factors will be considered as part of our consultation process."
So we can put that one down as a 'don't know', then. How will they differentiate between research for scientific and terrorist purposes? What will they do to stop blocked sites immediately popping up elsewhere, how will they make sure they get the right sites, and only the right sites, who will pay for mistakes, and how much will it all cost?
Faull, ever so politely, has coherent answers to none of these questions, and more, but then "we are still at the early stage of a the beginning of consultations and it would be premature to speak about a specific solution," and of course as "we are still considering legislative and non legislative options, we cannot speak about a specific option." Much more, or should we say less, at Spy Blog. We particularly commend the answer covering the precise definition of terrorism, set down confusingly here (some might suggest certain Governments could fall victim to (d)-(i) of Article 1), but subject to the "current reflection and consultation exercise [which] will consider whether a modification of such articles is actually required". So it's precise and set down, but fluid. Perhaps.
Note however that the decidedly vague nature of the Commission's planning does not necessarily mean it is not starting to happen anyway. The Internet has figured increasingly prominently in recent UK anti-terror legislation and investigations, and the Justice & Home Affairs Ministers are likely to continue to move the agenda on, with or without the Commission's consultations. ®