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UK Terrorism bill threatens blogs and websites.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:57 pm on 31 October, 2005.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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Update: I got it wrong on timing of the committee stage of the bill. It takes place over 2 days, the 2nd and 3rd of November respectively. See this link. Sorry for the mistake.

The blog, a British weblog concentrating on civil liberties and surveillance, berates the British blogosphere for failing to cover and/or analyse the Terrorism Bill 2005, which passed its second reading last week in the Commons, with the support of the opposition Tory Party (though the Lib Dems opposed). have their own detailed analysis of this bill split across this article, this article and this article.

In this article, I’ll concentrate mainly on the threat to freedom of speech identified by in the second of the above articles, in particular the threat to websites and weblogs in the UK. I intend to do a fuller analysis of my own later.

The threat arises from section 1, section 2 and section 3 of the bill:

  • Section 1 makes it an offence for someone to publish a statement that its intended audience are likely to understand as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to instigate, prepare or commit acts of terrorism. This is punishable by upto 7 years in jail.
  • Section 2 makes it an offence for someone to publish or distribute a “terrorist” publication. A terrorist publication includes publications that directly or indirectly encourage or incite acts of terrorism and publications that are useful to those preparing, instigating or committing acts of terrorism. Again this offence carries upto 7 years in jail.
  • A defence in both sections is that the user published the article only in the course of providing an electronic service, was unaware of its nature and did not endorse the publication in question.
  • Section 3 specifically relates to the internet. It gives a police constable the power to issue a notice to someone declaring that in his opinion material they’ve published electronically is “unlawfully terrorism-related” (i.e. falls under the categories covered in sections 1 and 2). The notice may order the person concerned to remove the article or alter it so that it is no longer “unlawfully terrorism-related”. The person has 2 days to comply with the notice. Failure to do so is deemed to be an endorsement of the article in question.

The threat to freedom of speech comes from the following aspects of these sections:

  • The vaguely defined nature of the offences. E.g. what constitutes “indirect encouragement or inducement”? What counts as “preparation”? Taking the words literally, it seems that to have a prima facie case under section 2, all the govt/police need to claim is that:
    • the article in question contains information useful to terrorists,
    • that those who read it are likely to understand it as being contained in the publication wholly or mainly to be useful to terroris.

    Note that the publisher’s intent is not relevant to these judgements.

  • The ability of a constable to demand an article be removed or modified with 2 days based on his personal opinion, combined with the publisher being deemed to have endorsed the article if he fails to comply in the allotted time. This effectively makes the constable’s word law since failure to comply means you’ve committed an offence. It is a recipe for abuse/bullying by unscrupulous police officers.

To see how wide an application this could have consider that articles analysing and dissecting anti-terror laws could be deemed to be useful to those wishing to commit acts of terrorism. If a police officer sends a notice on this basis, you have to comply within 2 days or face a prosecution and upto 7 years in jail.

There are many other disturbing features of this bill such as upto 90 days detention without charge for those suspect of terrorist offences, I intend to cover these later. In the meantime, as well as the above articles, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals are trying to raise awareness of the threat this legislation poses to libaries.

Note that the committee stage of this bill will be over on Wednesday 2nd November. Time to make use of WriteToThem

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