UK government enlists public to spot terror Web sites

Web sites will be taken down if their intent is to provide information to terrorists

The U.K. public can report terrorism-related Web sites to authorities for removal from the Internet under a new program launched by the British government.

The program is a way in which the government is seeking to enforce the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006, which make it illegal to have or share information that's intended to be useful to terrorists and bans glorifying terrorism or urging people to commit terrorism.

People can report Web sites on Direct.co.uk by filling out a Web-based form. The form includes categories to describe what's on the Web site, such as "terrorist training material" or "hate crimes."

Content deemed illegal by the U.K. includes videos of beheadings, messages that encourage racial or terrorist violence and chat forums revolving around hate crimes, according to information on Direct.co.uk.

The reports are anonymous and are then reviewed by police officers who are part of the new Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, run by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). A Home Office spokeswoman said that unit would be responsible for determining the intent of the content posted, which would determine whether it is in fact illegal.

But it begs the question of how, for example, chemistry textbooks published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- which have information on poison and explosives -- could be viewed, said Wendy M. Grossman, a member of the Open Rights Group advisory council and a freelance technology writer.

"I suppose the key is 'intended to be useful to terrorists,' and what they're trying to get at is networks of terrorists who educate each other and their recruits," Grossman said. "Bottom line is I don't believe this effort is going to make us any safer, though it may well turn up a few idiots who get prosecuted for, basically, saying stupid things."

Police should review submitted sites fairly quickly, said an ACPO spokeswoman. If the Web site is hosted in the U.K., police would ask the hosting provider to take the site offline. If a site is hosted overseas, then police would engage private industry and other law enforcement agencies, she said.

The reporting Web site is a sensible idea, but it's unlikely that many people will know it even exists if they come across the type of material the government aims to stop, said Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer at Pinsent Masons.

"I don't think the police anticipate a huge number of submissions," Robertson said.

In October 2007, British police arrested a 17-year-old for possessing a copy of the "The Anarchist Cookbook," a 1970s-era book featuring instructions on homemade bomb-making and other destructive tips.

Last month, a 38-year-old man pleaded not guilty to 12 terrorism-related charges, including four counts of owning information useful to terrorism, according to a BBC news story. One of the counts was for possessing "The Anarchist Cookbook," which is still sold today on Amazon.co.uk.

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Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
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