Response to Online Extremism: Beyond India

In our previous posts, we traced the Indian response to online extremism as well as the alternate regulatory methods adopted worldwide to counter extremist narratives spread via the internet. At the international level, the United Nations has emphasised upon the need to counter extremists who use the internet for propaganda and recruitment. This post explores the responses of three countries – UK, France and USA – that have often been the target of extremism. While strategies to counter extremism form part of larger counter-terror programmes, this post focuses on some measures adopted by these States that target online extremism specifically.

United Kingdom

In 2011, the UK adopted a ‘prevent strategy’ which seeks to ‘respond to the ideological challenge’ posed by terrorism and ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. This strategy seeks to counter ‘extremism’ which is defined as:

“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces”.

This definition has been criticised as being over-broad and vague, which can potentially ‘clamp-down on free expression’. In 2013, the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism (“Task Force”) submitted its report identifying the critical issues in tackling extremism and suggesting steps for the future. The Task Force recommended that the response to extremism must not be limited to dealing with those who promote violence – rather, it must target the ideologies that lead individuals to extremism. The report highlighted the need to counter extremist narratives, especially online. Some of its recommendations include building capabilities, working with Internet companies to restrict access to such material, improving the process for public reporting of such content and including extremism as a filter for content accessed online. The report also recommended the promoting of community integration and suggested steps to prevent the spread of extremist narratives in schools and institutions of higher education. While suggesting these methods, the report reaffirmed that the proposals are not designed to ‘restrict lawful comment or debate’.

A number of recommendations made by the Task Force have been adopted in the UK subsequently. For instance, the UK Government has set up a mechanism by which individuals can anonymously report online material promoting terrorism or extremism. Universities and colleges became legally bound to put in place policies to prevent extremist radicalization on campuses in 2015. Further, local authorities, the health sector, prisons and the police have all been accorded duties to aid in the fight against extremism.

UK is also considering a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill (the “Bill”) which proposes to bring in tougher counter extremism measures. The Bill empowers certain authorities to ban extremist groups, disrupt individuals engaging in extremist behaviour and close down premises that support extremism. However, the Bill has been criticised extensively by the Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee identified gaps such as the failure to adequately define core issues like ‘non-violent extremism’ and the use of measures like ‘banning orders’ which are over-broad and susceptible to misuse.

France

Reports reveal that France has become the largest source of Western fighters for the Islamic State and nearly 9000 radicalized individuals are currently residing in France. Over the last few years, France has also witnessed a series of terrorist attacks, which has resulted in bolstering of the counter-terrorism and counter-extremism measures by the country.

In November 2014, the French parliament passed an anti-terror legislation that permits the government to block websites that ‘glorify terrorism’ and censor speech that is deemed to be an ‘apology for terrorism’, among other measures. A circular released in January 2015 explains that “apology for terrorism” refers to acts which present or comment on instances of terrorism “while basing a favourable moral judgement on the same”.  In 2015, France blocked five websites, in one of the first instances of censoring anti-jihadist content. Since then, France has continued to censor online speech for the broad offence of ‘apology for terrorism’ with harsh penalties. It has been reported that nearly 87 websites were blocked between January to November 2015; and more than 700 people have been arrested under this new offence of ‘apology for terrorism’. The offence has been criticised for being vague, resulting in frequent prosecution of legitimate speech that does not constitute incitement to violence. In May 2015, another law was passed strengthening the surveillance powers of the State requiring Internet Service Providers to give unfettered access to intelligence agencies. This statute empowers authorities to order immediate handover of user data without prior court approvals. These legislations have been criticised for being over-broad and incorporating measures that are unnecessary and excessive.

In addition to these measures, France also launched an anti-Jihadism campaign in 2015 which seeks to counter extremism and radicalization throughout the society, specifically focusing on schools and prisons.

United States

The principle institution that develops counter-extremism strategies in the USA is the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism. The bureau has developed a Department of State & USAID Joint Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism. The strategy aims to counter efforts by extremist to radicalize, recruit and mobilize followers to violence. To pursue this aim, the strategy incorporates measures like enhanced bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, strengthening of the criminal justice system and increased engagement with different sectors like prisons, educational institutions and civil society. Promoting alternate narratives is a key component of the counter-extremism programme of the bureau.  However, it is important to note that this strategy has also been criticised for revealing very few details about what it entails, despite extensive budget allocations. A lawsuit has been filed under the Freedom of Information Act claiming that authorities have denied revealing information about this programme. Organisations fear that the initiatives under the programme have the potential of criminalizing legitimate speech and targeting certain communities.

Conclusion

State responses towards extremism have increased substantially in the past few years with new programmes and measures being put in place to counter these narratives in the fight against terrorism. While the measures adopted differ from state to state – some strategies like promoting de-radicalisation in educational institutions and prisons are commonly present. At the same time, some of the measures adopted threaten to impact freedom of speech due to vague definitions and over-broad responses. It is critical for authorities to strike a balance between countering extremist narratives and preserving free thought and debate, more so in institutions of learning. Consequently, measures to counter extremist narratives must be specific and narrowly tailored with sufficient safeguards in order to balance the right to security with civil liberties of individuals.

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