Extremist websites booming, but hard to police
By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Western authorities say the number of extremist websites is skyrocketing but taking action to remove them remains difficult and the head of a specialist British police unit said engagement was needed as well as enforcement.
Increasingly in recent years, politicians and global law enforcement agencies have spoken of their fears that militant groups were using the internet to radicalize and recruit people to their cause.
The failed bombing attempt on a U.S. commercial jet on Christmas Day in 2009 and the Army major who shot 13 people last year at Fort Hood in Texas were both linked to a U.S.-born Muslim cleric who uses the Web to spread pro-al Qaeda views.
"To a considerable extent we are faced by a technology arms race with terrorists," British Security Minister Pauline Neville-Jones said in a speech in July.
"The communications revolution has made it easier for terrorist groups to reach out to vulnerable individuals with their violent extremist ideology and propaganda."
Just last week (Sept 21) Ronald Noble, secretary general of international police agency Interpol, told a conference of senior officers in Paris that the number of extremist sites was "skyrocketing," expanding from 12 in 1998 to 4,500 in 2006.
"The threat is global; it is virtual; and it is on our doorsteps," he said.
So what are countries doing?
One response from Britain, one of the most vociferous countries calling for action particularly after the deadly July 2005 London suicide bombings, has been to set up a specialist unit, the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU).
Launched as a pilot earlier this year, the seven-person unit relies on the public or other police agencies to refer websites that they are concerned about.
These are assessed and, if necessary, action can be taken under terrorism laws to force websites to remove material or bring prosecutions against those responsible.
The aim was "to try to make the internet ... a more hostile environment for terrorists and violent extremists to operate," the CTIRU's head Detective Chief Inspector Jayne Snelgrove told Reuters in her first interview since the unit's launch.
However she said there was a disconnect between what people thought was offensive and what was actually criminal.
"The majority of sites that we will see will actually be moderate, or certainly won't be breaching UK law. Even very extreme sites don't breach UK legislation," she said.
"I would certainly suggest what a member of the public might consider unpalatable is a significant way off what would be breaching UK legislation."
She had no detailed figures for the number of referrals they had received, or how many sites had been taken down, saying the unit was still in its infancy.
"We have got a number of investigations taking place but it's too early to start giving details," she said.
"It's not just about removal and prosecution, it's also about understanding what's out there. We are not policing the internet."
Most of the sites referred to the CTIRU relate to radicalization, with a smaller number involving practical matters such as how to make a bomb or suicide vest.
The referrals have included sites linked to dissident Irish republican militants, although Snelgrove could not say whether such groups were actively recruiting via the web.
Although industry has been helpful, she said, the unit only has authority over UK-hosted or administered sites and most offending material is based outside Britain, requiring the cooperation of overseas police forces.
"The internet has made policing in general more difficult. Offences that occur over the internet are jurisdictionally difficult to respond to," she said.
"The fact it's difficult doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
Snelgrove is also conscious that they are not seen to be censoring the internet. Indeed, she says for sites that are not flagrantly breaching the law, she would rather see the use of "counter messaging" or engagement by moderate individuals, rather than a reliance on enforcement action.
"Personally I feel if there's a discussion going on, whether it be foreign policy or issues around UK legislation or policing, that actually we engage in that debate and we have a discussion as opposed to trying to remove content," she said.
"The only content we would remove is that which is unlawful and the threshold for that unlawfulness is very high. Material should only be removed when we are sure, otherwise we would be regarded as censoring material and that's not we are here for."
Interpol's Noble said only international police networks could prevent radicalization and Snelgrove agreed that such cooperation was key.
"It will have to be governments overseas and the UK government who need to work together to combat this issue over time," she said. "I'm sure there is an appetite to do so."
(Editing by Steve Addison)