When asked to name countries that impose extensive internet censorship, you might think of China, Iran, or North Korea; I doubt you'd think of the UK, but, after the home secretary Jacqui Smith's speech to the International Centre for Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence today, you really should.
Smith's headline-grabbing proposal, to use the same tools against "extremist" websites as are currently used against child pornography, should worry us all. Few hard details are available, but if we take her at her word this is a dangerous extension of government powers, with a dangerous lack of oversight. Press talk of extremist websites being taken down is foolish and betrays a lack of understanding of the internet. Just as with child pornography, web servers within the UK, maintained by UK ISPs or not, can be dealt with legally and technically relatively easily. Those outside our borders - ie, the vast majority, in both cases - are beyond our laws and technical reach, but the content they supply is not. Blocking traffic from servers that host child porn - effectively at our geographical borders - has been a UK government goal for some time, and in 2007 they made a huge step towards that. Good news? Not the way they went about it.
The technical approach was simple enough, based on a system devised by BT and known as Cleanfeed. A list of IP addresses is drawn up by the industry watchdog, the Internet Watch Foundation, supplied to and then augmented by the Home Office, and then handed to ISPs with the simple instruction "block traffic to and from these addresses". The problems are twofold.
First, the government, in the person of Home Office minister Vernon Coaker, simply demanded that all UK ISPs "voluntarily" sign up for the system - there is no legislative backing for this at all. And second, no doubt only because no open discussion took place, no parliamentary debate occurred, and therefore no real examination of the dangers of such a process were exposed, no one except the Home Office knows what's on that final list. We're led to believe that it's purely a list of child pornography sites. But no one outside government knows. Not even the ISPs. They block; they don't look.
As of December 31 last year, all UK ISPs duly agreed to adopt the system. You're now viewing a state-mandated subset of the internet. How do you feel about that? Like to vote against it? You can't. Like your MP to sit on a committee to oversee implementation? He can't. Like to know if the Google results you're seeing are a full representation of Google's actual results? You can't. Censorship at this level - above even ISPs, is all but invisible to the end user. It's a secret that they're keeping these secrets from you.
Now, this isn't China you might say, we trust our government to only censor material that needs censoring. Sure? This is the same government that has leaned on ISPs inside the UK, and outside, not with the intention of blocking illegal or obscene material, but simply sites that irritated, embarrassed, or offended the government. Not using legal methods either - a court order, say - but bullying and threats. And this is the same government that was only beaten by one vote in the House of Lords, on their 2006 proposal to force UK ISPs to drop sites on the say-so of a single police officer. This is, remember, that same government that's constantly telling us, with regard to ID cards, that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Why then, do they hide this list?
Now, OK, most will feel with regard to child pornography a bit of overkill may be justified, but with "extremism" we start a whole new ball game. It's a truism that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, what should also be understood is that what is inflammatory and incendiary material to one, is the simple truth to others. Can we really accept that a few pen pushers in the Home Office should have absolute veto over our online browsing habits?
If the government is determined to pursue this path - and I'd stress I'd really rather they didn't (the best answer to poisonous speech is non-poisonous speech) - then the very least they must do is introduce transparency. There is no reason why the list supplied to ISPs should not be reviewed and questioned by a parliamentary committee at the very least and, unlike child porn, there's no reason why that shouldn't be in open session. Better would be a wider consultation, perhaps along the lines of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, where government could put its case to interested parties, including representatives of ISPs, civil liberties groups, and the public. You bet I'd volunteer. We cannot allow a power like this to operate, unchecked and unobserved, even if it is currently used benignly. Can those who'd say they would trust this government to act proportionately, really say they'd trust all future governments also? Future Spycatcher episodes will invariably happen online and in the UK, if the government of the day chose to act, we'd know nothing about it. We may even be in that situation right now.
The manner in which the government has grasped this power, the way in which they are already wielding it, and their resistance to introducing transparency to the process, suggests they think imposing invisible and opaque censorship, with no legal process, is a proper way for the state to behave. I reckon the Chinese government feels that way too. Censors generally feel their censorship is in a good cause too. It makes no difference.
We need a proper legal footing for these measures, proper oversight, and a proper understanding that free speech is not a trivial principle the government can simply ignore, but a cornerstone of any state that claims to be democratic. If they're going to slice off chunks of the internet, then the rest of us need to be damn sure that what's going is going for a good reason, and that Jacqui Smith isn't both judge and jury, in the hanging, drawing, and quartering of the world wide web.