LONDON (Reuters) - The government wants the Internet industry to help combat militant Islamism on the Web in the same way it cooperates in fighting sex crime against children, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said on Thursday.
In her first major speech on countering Islamist radicalisation, Smith drew an analogy between the militant recruitment of impressionable youngsters on the Internet and the online stalking of children by paedophiles.
“Let me be clear. The Internet is not a no-go area for government,” she told a security conference.
“If we are ready and willing to take action to stop the grooming of the vulnerable young on social networking sites, then I believe we should also take action against those who groom vulnerable people for the purposes of violent extremism.”
Smith said she planned to consult with the Internet industry in the coming weeks. “Where there is illegal material on the Net, I want it removed,” she said.
She later told reporters it should be possible to develop filters to remove militant material from the Web like those commonly used to stop children accessing adult content.
“The fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do it,” she said.
Many Internet practitioners are sceptical about the feasibility of closing down militant Web sites, which may be hosted anywhere in the world, or blocking access to them. When sites are shut, the same material often pops up instantly elsewhere.
The European Commission last year floated the idea of trying to block Web searches for material such as bomb-making recipes and obliging Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to prevent access to sites containing them, but later backed away from the plan.
ISPs already cooperate with police to shut down sites that are clearly illegal, such as those dealing in child pornography. But they say combating militants involves issues of free speech and subtle distinctions between material that is illegal and content that is merely objectionable.
They say it is not their job to police billions of Web pages and so the onus is on the authorities to bring criminal content to their attention.
Britain has seen a marked increase in attacks by Islamist militants since it joined the United States in invading Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.
MI5 spy chief Jonathan Evans said last November the agency knew of at least 2,000 British-based individuals who posed a direct threat to national security because of their support for terrorism. Children as young as 15 were being groomed to carry out attacks, he said.
A Scottish student was jailed for eight years last October for possessing and distributing terrorist material via the Web.
Last July, three other men were jailed after pleading guilty to inciting terrorism via the Internet in messages that advocated killing non-Muslims.
One of them, Younes Tsouli, had become a key global propagandist for al Qaeda, using the online identity “irhabi007” - the Arabic word for terrorist, followed by the code number of the fictional spy James Bond.
Editing by Ralph Boulton