I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of sixth form students studying law at A or AS-level. I might have gotten the qualification level wrong – back in my day we had Highers and Advanced Highers. Good old Scottish school system. Anyway, the opportunity was a day-long conference in which the students were given the chance to come to university and engage with a variety of different seminars that replicated what it might be like to study at the university degree level.
My intention was to discuss how terrorist groups use the internet and based on their patterns of behaviour, come up with some kind of descriptive definition. Of course, my well laid plans were somewhat ruined when an even more interesting conversation came about. Oh, the plans of mice and men(!)
We were discussing extremist content online and the extent to which an individual could cause severe harm to the population simply by downloading a few documents off the internet and putting them into practise. One of my horrified students piped up (at least, I hope they were horrified as opposed to being excited at the prospect of downloading terror manuals!) to ask why the government didn’t just block this content to ensure that it couldn’t be used by extremists. This outburst began a very interesting conversation about the role of surveillance, the ethics of blocking content, the role of the security services and where the line should be drawn in the sand. For example, if we can block extreme content, how extreme should that content be before it gets blocked?
One of the answers that came back from this discussion was that no matter how hard you try to block content, it will always get through. When extremist content is identified and blocked/deleted it is usually re-hosted elsewhere, sometimes in multiple locations. This creates a Hydra effect and means that the security service end up with a more dangerous beast than what they started with being that there are more locations in which an individual could access the extremist content from and more resources are needed to ensure that those who do access this content can be identified. Simply blocking content may not provide the best answer to combating online extremist content.
may gain enough value from their usage of terrorist affiliated webpages to
engage in a terrorist attack. Driving groups underground may, in fact, make them more dangerous as they become harder to track and investigate.
In a roundabout way, then, the group came to the conclusion that extremist content should probably be left unblocked, under the caveat that it be monitored. This then began a discussion on the ways in which the security services engage in
surveillance against the general population and whether or not this is always appropriate.
It was an excellent session, after which I think the students were more confused than when they first started. All in all, exactly like studying at university, then.