Max Hill

Independent watchdog questions Amber Rudd’s plans to jail viewers of online terror content

Image credit: Press Association

Max Hill, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, has questioned the Home Secretary's proposal to jail people who view online terror content, asking: “Are two clicks on a link one too many, or will three clicks be required?”

The UK’s anti-terror watchdog has raised concern over plans announced by UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd to impose jail terms of up to 15 years on people who repeatedly view terrorist content on the internet.

Max Hill, a leading QC who is the UK’s current Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, warned lawyers would have to “wait and see what the words ‘repeatedly view’ actually mean”.

He also said there would have to be very careful work” carried out among legislators to stop innocent people being caught up in the offence.

Hill asked an audience comprised of lawyers and members of the human rights group Justice: “Are two clicks on a link one too many, or will three clicks be required? Can an internet user be innocently curious twice, but not three times?”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said earlier this month that the government wants to introduce a change in the law that would mean people who repeatedly view terrorist content online could face up to 15 years behind bars.

This would strengthen the existing offence of possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist so that it “applies to material that is viewed repeatedly or streamed online”, Rudd said.

Delivering the Tom Sargant Memorial Lecture at the central London offices of a multinational law firm last night, Hill stressed that he welcomed the government’s insistence that the updated offence would not criminalise those who merely clicked on a link by mistake or who did so “out of curiosity rather than with criminal intent”.

However, he also sounded a note of caution, saying that “in addition to safeguarding the curious from prosecution, we must surely be vigilant to ensure that those who view material in disgust, shock and disapproval do not find themselves on the wrong side of the law”.

Prime Minister Theresa May declared enough is enough” this year following a spate of terror atrocities in England. Senior figures in government have vowed to crackdown on the way in which the internet is exploited by groups like Isis to spread propaganda and groom potential jihadists.

However, Hill last night argued thought without action must not be criminalised and said it was important that the fight against terrorism should not lead to fundamental freedoms being undermined.

Whilst we can all agree that there should be nowhere for real terrorists to hide, we should also agree that legislating in the name of terrorism when the targeted activity is not actually terrorism would be quite wrong,” he said.

A No 10 spokeswoman said: As we have seen painfully in the UK this year, we face an unpredictable threat from terrorism. We have to tackle the ideologies that drive or inspire these kinds of attacks.

That is why we are doing things like establishing a new commission on countering extremism to help expose all forms of extremism and division and to challenge those who preach hate.

What we want to do is to send a clear message that we will not tolerate terrorism, those who help radicalise terrorists with their extremist views, or those who turn a blind eye to terrorist activity.

Hill has previously sparked debate among technologists by suggesting big internet companies should seek to combat the spread of terrorist propaganda online by ending the encryption of anonymous messages.

In an interview with the Evening Standard earlier this year, he said the aim would be for “verification” checks to be made in “nano-seconds” before allowing users access to the secrecy software used by the likes of WhatsApp and Telegram.

Speaking to E&T this month, police chief Mike Barton, one of the UK’s most senior law enforcement officers, compared enthusiasts for end-to-end encryption to the gun lobby in America.

He said: “They say it’s a human rights issue. My argument is it’s a human rights issue for people to be able to go to a concert and to go home alive.”

Professor John Walker, an expert in digital forensics, said technology companies were not justified in allowing people to protect their communications using end-to-end encryption provided by apps intended for mere chats between friends.

Rudd has been pilloried for suggesting “real people” do not need this type of secrecy for their communications.

Asked if he thought people needed military-strength encryption for their day-to-day communications, Walker told E&T: “They don’t.

He added: I think they’ve been caught up in the mystique of their own self-importance.”

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