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The great British firewall


Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.

This statement was not a line in a George Orwell novel, nor was it made by a third world dictator or an authoritarian government; it is written in the current British government’s manifesto. Shortly after that manifesto was launched and in the aftermath of a devastating terror attack on Westminster bridge that left seven people dead, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and blamed the internet.

She claimed that regulation was needed because it would “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” and said that technology firms are not doing enough. “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed – yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide,” she said.

Some claimed that blaming the internet for a terror attack was a poor response from the country’s leader, others debated whether technology companies actually can do more, but few pointed out the potentially terrifying implications of such regulation.

The Prime Minister’s attempt to gain more power by calling for a general election failed spectacularly and left her clinging onto power by her fingertips. She was forced to pull many of her manifesto promises, but internet regulation remained. And it appears to have become one of her main goals as she tries to stabilise her government and reassert the party-manufactured notion that she is a strong leader.

If she is successful in implementing the policy, it is not clear what internet regulation in Britain would look like but based on recent remarks the best comparison may be The Great Firewall of China. China’s regulation measure censors the internet by criminalising certain online comments, blocking select website content, filtering out key words in searches and prohibiting certain politically sensitive discussions. When Theresa May was asked if this is the kind of regulation she is looking to introduce, she simply replied “let’s work with the companies.”

Charlie Smith, who runs Great Fire, an organisation which centres on circumventing the restrictions on China’s internet and helps provide citizens access to sites such as Google and The New York Times, told Global Comment what this kind of regulation would mean.

“First thing would be to tell non-UK internet companies that if they want to operate in the UK then they need to abide by local laws,” he said. “If they agree to that, they have to set up local entities. These entities would be responsible for censoring their own content in accordance with the law and establishing a team to oversee and censor user-generated content. Failure to follow the law will result in jail time for company executives. If non-UK companies do not agree to this, then their websites will be blocked in the UK. The UK will then place heavy restrictions on the use of circumvention tools and will block and disrupt most of them. Local employees of circumvention tool providers may be placed in jail.”

These measures would come at a great cost to British taxpayers and would likely have no impact on a terrorist group’s ability to operate. Mr Smith said that since the implementation of regulation in China there have been no known examples of terrorism or extremism being prevented. “There are no examples that I can point to,” he said. “In fact, the Chinese authorities took extreme measures in some parts of the country and shut down the internet completely when they felt that they did not have adequate control over it. These actions upset the entire society, not just groups that the authorities were targeting.”

While the UK government is using extremism to justify implementing internet regulation, their real motive is far more likely to be control of political dissent and censorship. It is already apparent based on recent policies that the government’s primary goal is not fighting extremism. In 2014, under David Cameron, the Conservative government implemented a censorship measure that had no relationship at all to combating terrorism, instead it was one of the strictest restrains on pornography in the west.

Mr Cameron said certain forms of legal pornography was “corrupting childhood” and “normalising sexual violence against women” and so he implemented a policy which requires internet service providers to prohibit citizens from accessing certain websites by default. They are now required to ‘opt-in’. But pornography is not the only thing being blocked. In 2013, the New Statesman magazine reported that O2 were blocking the Childline and Refuge websites and BT was blocking gay and lesbian content.

And in July 2013 the Open Rights Group said the UK was “sleep walking into censorship”. It found that the ‘opt-in’ filters would include content far beyond pornography, such as smoking, alcohol, web forums, eating disorders and web blocking circumvention tools. Mrs May is likely to take this further based on her accusations that technology firms, including YouTube and Facebook, have been dragging their feet and failing to remove extremist material.

The problem is also the definition of ‘extremist’ material; who decides on what that term means? In China many citizens are oblivious to the fact their government is oppressing the Tibetan community because information is censored and Tibetans are deemed ‘separatists’. Thousands of Tibetans have been arbitrarily detained and tortured for ‘crimes’ such as speaking about political matters or owning a photograph of the Dalai Lama, a person China effectively sees as an extremist.

If the British government were to be given the same legal ability to regulate, then who is to say that certain news stories which may harm the party politically will not be ‘regulated’. For example, reports of Britain’s massive weapons sales fueling the conflict in Yemen, causing the death of thousands of civilians and leading to the world’s worst cholera outbreak, could be deemed ‘extremist’ material because it could harm the government’s agenda. The same goes for any of Britain’s deepened relations with some of the world’s repressive regimes including Bahrain, Israel, Uzbekistan and Turkey.

There is also the question of when would it end. If regulation is brought in to combat extremism when could that battle ever be over? How is it possible to ever say extreme views have been eliminated from society? Instead these measures would be permanent.

Mr Smith added: “Again, if you take China as an example, the authorities claim that everyone is happy in all regions in China yet information restrictions must remain in place to maintain this stability. So, no, these restrictions would likely last for a long time and would be helped along if UK citizens just accepted these changes as the ‘new normal’.”

Even the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC, has stated: “We do not live in China, where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides. Our democratic society cannot be treated that way.” The Conservative government has already developed the most intrusive surveillance apparatus of any democracy on the planet in the form of the Investigatory Powers Bill or Snoopers Charter.

And Mrs May has said she is willing to rip up human rights law, a comment the UN human rights chief called a “gift” to every despot who “shamelessly violates human rights under the pretext of fighting terrorism” If policies such as these were to be combined with the regulation and censorship of the internet, then how much longer can the country truly be regarded a democratic society and not a veiled totalitarian state?

Suppression of freedom of speech and control of information is a hallmark of a totalitarian government in order to enforce the government’s view of reality and this is often implemented under the pretext of national security and defence. Keeping citizens safe should always be a priority for a government and the battle against extremist ideologies is a complicated and challenging problem that today’s world faces. But censorship, state control, and the destruction of human rights is not only not the way to achieve it but, as history has shown, it may lead to something far more dangerous.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour party, gave a speech which was praised by many but demonised by the state, whose policies it threatened. Rather than blame the internet, Mr Corbyn connected the cause of terrorism to the west’s continual and dangerous regime change attempts abroad.

He said: “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home. That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions. But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism. Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.”

Photo: Hillary/Creative Commons