The case: Punishing users of extremist websites
On 15th March 2012, Mohammed Merah killed two soldiers of the French army and left a third in a coma. A few days later, on 19th March, Merah attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse shooting at point blank range a teacher and three children. It emerged from the investigation that Merah had been consulting jihadist websites and had been to Pakistan twice, arousing suspicions in the DCRI, the French intelligence agency. On 22 March 2012, in the aftermath of the attacks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his intention of imposing stricter anti-terrorist measures. These included a proposed law condemning internet users who regularly visit websites promoting terrorism and violence. Inspired by the 2007 law aimed at regular users of child pornography websites, Sarkozy claimed that the criminalisation of this offence would allow quicker arrests of suspects without having to wait for tangible proof, and argued that had this law been implemented before, Merah might have been stopped earlier. Reporters Without Borders underlined the potential risks of such measures restricting free access to information and asked Sarkozy to be more specific about the methods that would be used to enforce this law.
National security concerns around terrorism mean that it is necessary to have a deterrent that will help prevent the recruitment of terrorists. Terrorism is one of the biggest threats to western countries today and this is potentially an effective way of dealing with it.
Traditional military responses to terrorism do not work due to terrorists’ underground nature and decentralised cell structure that operates throughout the world. It is even questionable whether ‘al Qaeda’ as a group exists at all except as an identity for those wanting to attack the west to operate under. Efforts against terrorism therefore need to be aimed at preventing radicalisation and stopping individuals rather than attempting to destroy the whole group known as al Qaeda. This law not only deters people from becoming extremists through making them think twice about visiting extremist websites but it also helps to deter promoters of extremism through denying them an audience.
If punishing users of extremist websites prevents even a few people who would otherwise have visited these websites from doing so and setting out on a part of radicalisation that leads to terrorism then it will have been a success.
There is no evidence that a deterrent like this works, we will never know who might have been radicalised but was not because they were deterred from visiting extremist websites. However if those visiting these websites really are terrorists then a spell in prison is not going to deter them. Moreover this is not a good way of preventing radicalisation as it does not get to the key issues. Instead of prosecuting those who visit extremist websites they must be shown how those views are wrong, something that can only be done through debate and discussion, locking them up will not do this.
The internet may be a free for all where all ideas and viewpoints can be found but that does not mean that all users view all these views. Instead the internet acts as an echo chamber that encourages people to believe their own views are correct and so get more extreme rather than challenging them. Eli Pariser author of a book called The Filter Bubble argues that the internet forces us to consume a very narrow range of views as search engines have been personalised with the intention of letting users find what they like so two people searching for the same thing on google can get very different results, for example when googling ‘BP’ during the oil spill one person might be directed to information about the spill and its environmental consequences while another might get just investment information. When this kind of filtering is added to people constantly interacting with extremists and on websites praise and incite terrorism it is clear that users of these sites will get caught in a confirmation bias and conformation bias tends to lead to people becoming more polarised. It is therefore the right policy to punish users of extremist websites before they become too radicalised as it is only a very short step from believing an attack is praiseworthy to carrying out similar attacks.
 Lord, C., Ross, L., and Lepper, M., ‘Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence’. JPSP, 1979, no.37, pp.2098-2109. Summary from faculty.babson.edu.
Punishing the users of these extremist websites will not force these extremists to confront their views either. Punishing them is likely to create a victim mentality, a belief that the state is out to get them because of their beliefs not because of any particular act they may have committed. This is similarly likely to confirm them in their resentments and cause more radicalisation.
Regardless of whether as Sarkozy claims Mohammed Merah would himself have been stopped earlier had this law been in place at the time this law will catch some terrorists in the future and stop them before they can do large amounts of harm. Punishing users of extremist websites will mean that the government can stop those who are on a path to radicalisation through their access to the internet and as a result this will help neutralise a key tool used by extremists to radicalise others.
There have already been examples of people being inspired to carry out violent jihad through material online such as Roshonara Choudhry who after watching some of Anwar Al Awlaki’s sermons online attempted to murder Labour MP Stephen Timms. This kind of legislation would mean that he could be punished for the lesser crime thereby preventing him from being able to engage in much more damaging criminal activities. Simply put if extremists are behind bars they are not engaging in terrorist attacks that could kill many people.
The proposition is assuming that we know what effect visiting extremist websites will have, we don’t. For some regularly visiting websites that promote violence may end up sickening them and encouraging them to re-evaluate their views rather than further radicalising them. The best way to prevent heinous terrorist acts is not to lock people up on minor offenses but to amass evidence of the much larger offences they are planning and convict them for those offenses rather than a law that will catch many innocents as well as the guilty.
How will criminalising visiting extremist websites prevent radicalisation? Those who know about the law will simply look for the same material that they used to find on extremist websites elsewhere on the internet either through social networks such as Facebook and twitter, where for example Muhammad al-Arefe a Saudi cleric who has issued a fatwa endorsing violence against non-Muslims has over a million followers, or other immense sites such as youtube. Radicalisation over the internet will therefore not be stopped by punishing users of certain websites.
Indeed such punishment of users of extremist websites may well end up creating more radical extremists than it prevents. Merah himself when talking to police negotiators before his death told them that it was being sent to prison for 18 months for driving without a licence that provoked his outrage against France and path to murder. This law would be putting more young men in prison and therefore potentially radicalising them through giving them something to be angry about, the opportunity to meet real extremists and demonstrating why the extremists believe the west should be attacked.
Criminalisation will prevent radicalisation by stopping users accessing the most extreme content. Sites such as YouTube and Facebook already police themselves and are unlikely to allow extremist materials to remain online for extended periods in the face of public pressure. It is for extremist websites where public pressure can have no effect that needs the law to step in by punishing those who are regularly visiting those sites and being radicalised by them.
A law that punishes users of extremist websites would create a whole host of practical problems. Most obviously how are the authorities to monitor who are visiting extremist websites without a large expansion of a surveillance society that already exists? There would need to be large scale monitoring of what websites everyone visits or at least the ability for governments to get records from internet service providers, potentially a grave breach of individual’s right to privacy.
Laws are only effective if those who are subject to the law have some idea of what that law means and what they should not be doing. A good law should define what exactly the criminality is and this law would almost certainly have many problems with definitions. What makes someone a regular or habitual visitor? A few visits too many sites, hundreds of visits, regular visits once a week? There will also be challenges working out which websites should be considered extremist and even then how is a user to know that a website they visit is considered an ‘extremist’ website? Any type of warning would be counterproductive as no one would ever be caught and extremists would keep changing websites. This would create a climate of fear on the internet due to ambiguity about what is acceptable and what might result in being thrown into prison. While itself a terrible infringement of freedom of expression at least blocking access to some websites has the advantage of showing what the state considers unacceptable.
This ‘climate of fear’ would only apply to those who know that what they are looking for is wrong. For these people if it does create a climate of fear then this is beneficial as it helps to create deterrence. Government would only be monitoring those it already suspects of extremism so ordinarily law abiding citizens need not be worried about surveillance as it will not affect them.
It is a basic principle of fairness that punishment should fit the crime. In this case the crime is visiting a website, something that in itself may cause no harm at all so why should there be punishment? At best such a law would be punishing on the basis of future harm the accused would otherwise cause if not punished while at worst it would be an arbitrary punishment for people who would never have committed any harm at all.
Not everyone who visits extremist websites is themselves an extremist or is going to be radicalised even after regular visits. Moreover not every person with extremist views is either themselves violent or intending to promote violence. Finally there are a large number of people who regularly visit extremist websites with the purpose of monitoring them; these may be members of the police, the intelligence services, those simply wanting to understand the other and journalists attempting to keep up with extremist trends. What such a law would be doing would be criminalising curiosity.
Many of the worries raised about who might be charged under such laws are irrelevant, judges and juries will be able to tell when someone is a journalist or intelligence official who does not have any criminal intent. Others who are visiting these extremist sites based upon ideology and yet are never going to engage in terrorist attacks themselves may well still provide financial or other support to those who do commit more violent acts. A primary aim of the law is “to forbid and prevent conduct that unjustifiably and inexcusably inflicts or threatens substantial harm to individual or public interests” something that this does by through preventing more major crimes by prosecuting for a minor crime. We should also remember that the punishment need not be disproportionate as it could simply mean restricting the guilty party’s internet access rather than prison.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that is recognised universally as is shown by its inclusion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This however should not just be taken as the freedom to have an opinion but also as the freedom to “seek and receive… information and ideas through any media”, being cut off from information that a person is seeking is as much an infringement of human rights as preventing them from voicing their opinion. People are denied their voice as much by not having access to information as by not being allowed to speak because access to information is fundamental in the process of being able to form those opinions. Learning and opinion forming cannot exist within a vacuum access to information that enables this. This freedom includes the freedom to access extremist websites as often as you wish without being punished for this action, we cannot prejudge what opinion will be formed from access to this information let alone what actions may result from that opinion.
Freedom of expression carries with it duties and responsibilities which mean that this freedom may be subject to restrictions or penalties as the European Convention on Human Rights recognises. In this case there is a national security interest and potentially a public safety interest to punish those who are accessing damaging information. Freedom of expression does not therefore apply to extremist websites that are inciting people to engage in acts of terrorism.
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