UK to hike penalties on viewing terrorist content online

In its ongoing war against online extremism the UK government has said it intends to change the law to bring in tougher sentences for people who repeat view terrorist content online — increasing the maximum penalty to up to 15 years behind bars.

The Conservative Party is holding its annual conference this week, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd is expected to announce the new powers aimed at tackling radicalization today, The Guardian reports. A Home Office spokesman confirmed the proposed law change, although there is no timeframe attached to the plan as yet.

The government said it is bringing in the new penalties after a review of counterterrorism powers in the wake of a spate of attacks in the UK this year. It wants to plug what Rudd couches as a gap in the law around material that is streamed or viewed online instead of being permanently downloaded.

This follows moves by the Home Office to crank up the pressure on tech platforms to remove extremist content from their platforms — with the UK government also leading a push to radically shrink average timescales for extremist content to be deleted.

The proposed changes to UK law around viewing terrorist content online are intended to strengthen an existing offense of possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist, under section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Currently this applies if material has been downloaded or printed out.

But the government wants to expand it to include material that has been viewed repeatedly or streamed online. Although how exactly investigators would be able to determine that a particular individual has repeat-viewed proscribed content is an open question. (But at the end of last year the UK passed a law requiring ISPs keep web activity logs of all users for 12 months.)

The Home Office says the law will only apply to those found to repeatedly view online terrorist material to try to avoid criminalizing those who click a link out of curiosity or accidentally.

While a defense of “reasonable excuse” would still be available to academics, journalists or others who may have a legitimate reason to view such material, according to The Guardian.

A new maximum penalty of 15 years in jail will also apply to terrorists who publish information about members of the armed forces, police and intelligence services for the purposes of preparing acts of terrorism, it added.

Following terrorists attacks in the UK this year Rudd has pressurized Internet companies to do more to remove extremist content from their platforms. She has also called for them to limit their use of end-to-end encryption — a call that has apparently been resisted by the likes of Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp thus far.

Writing in a newspaper article this summer Rudd appeared to claim it was possible for e2e encryption to be compromised without the need for a backdoor.

She also suggested the public is not interested in its communications being private, implying that therefore tech giants should not use the technology — attracting equal parts criticism and ridicule from privacy rights groups and security experts alike.

The Home Secretary was apparently questioned about her understanding of encryption at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference, where she hit out at the tech industry for being patronizing.

“It’s so easy to be patronized in this business. We will do our best to understand it. We will take advice from other people. But I do feel that there is a sea of criticism for any of us who try and legislate in new areas, who will automatically be sneered at and laughed at for not getting it right,” she reportedly said, adding: “I don’t need to understand how encryption works to understand how it’s helping the criminals. I will engage with the security services to find the best way to combat that.”