Censorship is not the way forward in countering online extremism argues Ghaffar Hussain, Head of Research at Quilliam, in the International Business Times.

A number of media reports suggest that the government is seeking to order ISPs to block extremist websites. These plans, though well-intentioned, are problematic for a number of reasons and the internet, it seems, is being viewed as a soft target by a government that is failing to tackle extremism in other areas.

Website blocking of extremist content is not only unworkable in practice but also counterproductive for other counter-extremist efforts. Potential online censorship plans are modelled on similar measures used to crack down on websites hosting images of child abuse. A partly industry-funded body, called the Internet Watch Foundation, investigates reports of material online and, subsequently, asks ISPs to remove content deemed illegal.

Firstly, online material showing or promoting child abuse or rape is not analogous to online material promoting extreme political or religious ideology. There is a society-wide consensus around child abuse and rape and there is no real debate to be had around the merits of such malevolent activities. As such, paedophiles and rapists need either professional help or processing by the justice system. Furthermore, those who seek to consume such content are clearly breaking the law and already engaging in illegal and dangerous activities.

However, when it comes to websites discussing, debating or even promoting ideas that may be deemed “extreme”, there are some very real intellectual debates to be had and engagement is both viable and useful. We are dealing with the realm of ideas and, as a liberal society that cherishes intellectual curiosity, individuals should be allowed to expose themselves to a wide variety of political and religious positions.

Government attempts at censorship, enforced by editing, blocking or deleting online content, leads to a large grey area concerning freedom of speech and expression within Western democracies. The visible presence of online communities that discuss and debate extremist ideas is also an opportunity of counter-extremism practitioners, such as me, to engage in conversation with those sympathetic to extremist ideas and analyse conversational trends, which, in turn, inform counter-extremism strategies.

Seeking to counter online extremism by shutting down the debate through censorship is also notoriously difficult, if not counterproductive. If, for example, a website hosting extremist material were blocked by an ISP, another website hosting the same material would emerge soon after, ad infinitum. This has been witnessed with a number of extremist content sites that have already replicated themselves under a myriad of names and angles.

There is also the real danger of oppressing extremist content seekers delving further into an elusive “dark internet”, making it more difficult to track and counter online extremism. Furthermore, advancing government internet censorship is a highly costly endeavour. Direct costs include implementing large-scale internet filtering software, upgrading systems and taking on a great deal of staff to monitor, scan and edit content deemed “extreme”. Consumers, in other words the general public, will have to pick up this cost.

Countering online extremism through debate, argument and the creation of counter-extremism content is a far more innovative and cost-effective approach and certainly more efficacious than the brash deletion of everything deemed extreme by government bodies. Censorship can also be interpreted as fear and gives extremist ideas kudos that they don’t deserve. We, as civil society, must not appear afraid of taking on extremist ideas directly and countering such ideas with better ideas. We must work to develop our own forums, websites and social media networks that defend liberal democratic values and provide alternative narratives to the ones peddled by extremists. The government, on the other hand, must focus on providing support for counter-extremism practitioners already working in schools, prisons and communities rather than policing the internet.

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