Published on Tuesday, 19 June 2012 04:31 Written by Ketlan Ossowski
A few days ago, Searchlight ran an article referring to the arrests of four people in Gemany suspected of running a far-right extremist website. In this article, it was pointed out that a fifth person had been taken in for questioning - in Chichester, West Sussex, which, if nothing else, shows the casual internationality of the internet and the ease with which national boundaries are ignored.
In this instance, the arrests were made in connection with a site where extremists meet, talk and download racist music which was said to incite racial hatred and violence, Holocaust denial and the promotion of a Nazi government. The head of the federal police was quoted as saying that 'the internet is not a law-free space'.
Indeed it isn't, though frequently it may seem like one. The nazi Redwatch site has been around for years, encouraging and glorifying violence against those the far-right perceives as its enemies. It posts pictures, phone numbers and home addresses of those who oppose the BNP, EDL and other similar groups. Those who organise and contribute to Redwatch seem to have avoided prosecution thus far simply by using servers based in the United States to host the site.
America's peculiar and inconsistent laws around freedom of speech appear, largely, to protect those who can afford to pay for protection, including the government itself.
Google plays a major role in the internet, not only with major platforms such as Blogger, GMail and YouTube but also as the world's leading search engine. If a site isn't visible via Google's indexing, it might as well give up and close down. Thus it is that the company is bombarded with take-down requests from corporations, individuals and the government.
Google provided a glimpse at the onslaught of government requests in a summary posted on its website a couple of days ago. The breakdown covers the final six months of last year and shows that the US government filed 6,321 requests with Google for user data during that period. That was far more than any other country, according to Google, and a 6% increase from the previous six months. Google complied with 93 percent of the US requests for user data, encompassing more than 12,200 accounts.
It's not just data on users that attracts the interest of the US government. Google reports that agencies are increasingly using their power to suppress political opinion and other material that they dislike - the US submitted 187 requests to take down content in the relevant period, double the number of the previous six months. This number is not quite so low as it seems to be: the requests covered 6,200 separate items. Clearly, free speech has limits.
While the States led the charge for data-gathering via Google, the UK wasn't all that far behind, ending up fourth on the list with 1,455 requests for information on users. Mostly, the UK requests were based around the prevention of terrorism and other criminal activity, including a request that YouTube remove five user accounts that allegedly promoted terrorism. The accounts were closed and approximately 640 videos were removed.
Like it or not, there is a case to be made for censorship (though one would live in the probably vain hope that governments would stop short of an absolute censorship of everyone who opposed them) and where it is used, the relevant government has to use its good sense rather than wielding the big stick. Germany, for instance, has very strict laws against the promotion of nazism or fascist ideology, which led, on one occasion, to the ludicrous attempt to prosecute an anti-fascist who sold badges and t-shirts emblazoned with a 'no nazis' road sign simply because it used the nazi emblem, the swastika - and don't let's have the usual suspects bother commenting about the swastika being an ancient Hindu symbol for peace: I know that and it means nothing in this instance.
Generally speaking, the far-right - at least here in the UK - gets a pretty easy ride. Redwatch has been around for years, despite the blatant illegality of much of its content, GriffinWatch has been allowed to continue despite being reported to both the police and Google on numerous occasions for its appallingly racist content and sites like the UKIP-run British Democracy Forum continues to allow the far-right free and libellous rein in its BNP and EDL sections.
The far-right isn't always safe though. Readers may recall the case of Sheppard and Whittle, a pair of neo-nazis based in the North-West of England, who, back in mid 2008 were convicted of race-hate offences after publishing racially inflammatory material, distributing racially inflammatory material and possessing racially inflammatory material with a view to distribution.
In Sheppard's case, the downfall began back in 2004, when a leaflet entitled 'Tales of the Holohoax" was reported to the police after it was pushed through the door of a synagogue in Blackpool, and was eventually traced back to him. Had the ex-BNP organiser confined his racist rantings to the internet, he might have avoided a four year prison sentence. Or perhaps not. Instead, Sheppard might have quietly started problems for his chums on the far-right by using the defence that the online material did not fall under the jurisdiction of UK law, because his site was hosted on servers in California. But in a landmark ruling, the judge dismissed this - potentially paving the way for further prosecutions against the owners of other hate sites who believe they are exploiting the same legal loophole - Redwatch and GriffinWatch, for example.
In a BBC report at the time, reviewing lawyer Mari Reid, of the CPS's Counter Terrorism Division, was quoted as saying; 'People are entitled to hold racist and extreme opinions which others may find unpleasant and obnoxious. What they are not entitled to do is to publish or distribute those opinions to the public in a threatening, abusive or insulting manner either intending to stir up racial hatred or in circumstances where it is likely racial hatred will be stirred up'.
And there is the crux of the censorship debate - people are perfectly entitled to hold views that may be abhorent to most folk, but they cannot be permitted to publish those views and thus disseminate them to the wider world, whether it's through an American server or not.
The idea of any censorship at all, particularly where it concerns the internet, is automatically worrying to many people who regard it as threatening. But there has always been censorship of a sort, mainly via the companies who own the servers upon which the internet is largely located. If we want an internet which is safe and secure, and which is not used for the spreading of race hate, child pornography, lies and libels or harassment, we must accept that a limited censorship is both necessary and desirable. It's that or complete anarchy and the latter simply will not work because self-regulation requires all users to have the same set of morals, which is extremely unlikely.
There is no need to regulate the internet to death. In fact, all that's necessary is to regulate it to the point where sites conform to the law in the publisher's country - not too much to ask, surely? If this ever happens, the far-right will still be able to publish a load of misleading crap but will be obliged to keep it within certain limits. Encouraging debate will be fine, encouraging violence or other illegal activity will not. Being critical will be fine, being racist will not.
I'm all for censorship, up to a point, but only if it is used to conform to laws that already exist. That, to me, sounds like a Good Thing, but I'd be interested to hear reader's views. Post in the comments if you have something you think is worth saying. I don't expect everyone to agree with me - far from it, in fact - but that's fine. Debate is not only allowed but welcomed. As long as it conforms to the law, of course.