It will be an offence to view terrorist material online just once – and could incur a prison sentence of up to 15 years – under new UK laws.
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill was granted Royal Assent yesterday, updating a previous Act and bringing new powers to law enforcement to tackle terrorism.
But a controversial inclusion was to update the offence of obtaining information "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism" so that it now covers viewing or streaming content online.
The rules as passed into law are also a tightening of proposals that had already been criticised by human rights groups and the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Max Hill.
Originally, the proposal had been to make it an offence for someone to view material three or more times – but the three strikes idea has been dropped from the final Act.
The law has also increased the maximum penalty for some types of preparatory terrorism offences, including the collection of terrorist information, to 15 years' imprisonment.
Under Section 58(1) of the 2000 Act, it was an offence to collect or make a record of information that is likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.
But the government argued in the impact assessment for the 2019 Act (PDF) that this "would not capture a situation where a person viewed such material over the internet without obtaining a permanent access to it", such as by streaming or viewing it online.
It said that the existing laws didn't capture the "nuance" in "changing methods" for distribution and consumption of terrorist content – and so added a new clause into the 2019 Act (PDF), making it an offence to "view (or otherwise access) any terrorist material online".
This means that, technically, anyone who clicked on a link to such material could be caught by the law – and rights groups are concerned about the potential for abuse.
In the summer, when the proposals were for multiple clicks, terrorism law reviewer Max Hill (no relation to your correspondent) told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the "the mesh of the net the government is creating... is far too fine and will catch far too many people".
He also pointed out that the offence could come with a long sentence as the draft bill also extends the maximum penalties to 15 years' imprisonment.
Corey Stoughton of rights campaigner Liberty echoed these concerns, and said the law should not cover academics and journalists, but should also exempt people who were viewing to gain a better understanding of the issues, or did so "out of foolishness or poor judgement".
The UN's special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, has also slammed the plans, saying the rule risked "pushing a bit too much towards thought crime".
At an event during his visit to the UK, Cannataci said "the difference between forming the intention to do something and then actually carrying out the act is still fundamental to criminal law… here you're saying: 'You've read it three times so you must be doing something wrong'."
The government said the law still provides for the existing "reasonable excuse defence", which includes circumstances where a person "did not know, and had no reason to believe" the material acccessed contained terrorist propaganda.
"Once a defendant has raised this defence, the burden of proof (to the criminal standard) to disprove this defence will rest with the prosecution," the Home Office's impact assessment said. ®