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Terrorist and Extremist Propaganda: Online Sources

Volume 783: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to combat terrorist and extremist propaganda released through multimedia channels, particularly social media, videos, the internet, and other online sources.

My Lords, before I begin, I wish Muslims here and all round the world Eid Mubarak.

The Government have been clear that there should be no safe space online for terrorists and their supporters to radicalise, recruit, incite or inspire. We continue to work closely with industry to come up with innovative ways to tackle terrorists’ use of the internet.

Is my noble friend aware of the detailed and excellent work done by the Henry Jackson Society, which proves that if a radicalised individual sees material such as a beheading video, he or she is likely to act within two to three weeks? My noble friend mentioned industry, but is she further aware that Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube, Google and Twitter have teamed up to make the servicing of hostile material very difficult? Nevertheless, that does not cover encryption of messages, there are no financial penalties as there are in Germany, and videos are taken down only when there is a complaint. Against that background, will Her Majesty’s Government move with all possible speed to ensure that the agreements between those companies are tightened up even further, and look at the other elements that I have mentioned?

My Lords, my noble friend is right that the move to actual radicalisation can be very quick indeed. I pay tribute to the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, which since 2010 has helped to secure the removal of 270,000 pieces of material from the internet by social media providers—8,000 a month in 2016 alone. The CTIRU was the first of its kind globally and continues to be world-leading in its operation. My noble friend mentioned encryption, and we support the use of strong encryption. However, we must also ensure that, in tightly prescribed circumstances, our law enforcement and security and intelligence agencies are able to access the communications of criminals, including terrorists.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that what generally passes for religion is not only ethical guidance for sane living, but a sometimes oppressive culture and a shared history often bent or moulded to dislike or hatred? It is such material that is used to radicalise people. Does the Minister agree that there should be open debate about these things and that this aspect of religion should not be protected by political correctness if we want a truly healthy society?

The noble Lord, as always, makes insightful points. Of course there is a big difference between religion and culture and it is often in the attempt to conflate the two that we come up against such horrible types of terrorist activity. The Prime Minister said the other day that we must be prepared to have difficult conversations and I totally agree. Just because conversations are difficult does not mean that we should not have them, and they may lead to a much smoother way forward.

My Lords, the Government realise that the only effective sanction against overseas pornographic websites that refuse to implement age verification is to ask UK internet service providers to block those sites. Bearing it in mind that it would be disproportionate to block sites such as Facebook and YouTube, how do the Government intend to deal with terrorist and extremist propaganda if technology companies do not do enough?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has spent an extensive amount of time over the past few weeks and months talking to communications service providers. Only on Monday, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft and YouTube announced the formation of a global internet forum, primarily to counter terrorism but also, through that collaborative way forward, to tackle some of the things that the noble Lord mentioned, such as extreme pornography.

My Lords, I declare my interest as in the register. The internet is also the place of initiatives that help to counter terrorism—think of the incredible relief that many victims of terrorism have felt by using social media and gathering information and news. Does the Minister agree that it is as essential to protect an open and free internet as it is to make sure that we take down the videos to which the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, referred? Can I ask that, in the digital charter announced in the manifesto and in the Queen’s Speech, we do as much to revert to some of the original spirit of the internet as we do to address the challenges that we face in 2017?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right not only that the internet is a useful tool to challenge this sort of activity, but that freedom of speech and use of the internet are important in our society. There is a fine balance between freedom of speech and speech that is downright extremist and hateful. That is why we have adopted our approach, which is to take down extremist material and put up a counternarrative, in the meantime, helping to educate people about the dangers of radicalisation.

My Lords, following that answer, can the Minister tell us what definition of “extremist” the Government are using?

The Government are not using the definition of extremism which I know the Metropolitan Police has designated the noble Baroness with. “Extremist material” refers to content that is assessed as contravening UK terrorism legislation.