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Tougher laws should not be ‘only’ tactic in fight against online extremism

Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd looks at the media as she arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, in London, in this Sept. 21, 2017 photo. (AP)
LONDON: Tougher laws and harsh prison sentences should not be the only method of tackling the threat of terrorism, warn campaigners and academics as governments across Europe look to ramp up their anti-terror legislation.
The UK’s home secretary Amber Rudd announced plans on Tuesday to change the law to be able to sentence people who repeatedly view terrorist content online for up to 15 years in jail. Currently people can only be convicted of an offense if they download or store this material rather than view or stream it online.
It is a “critical difference” to the law, she said during a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Someone who publishes information on the UK police or armed forces for the purposes of preparing a terror attack could also face up to 15 years in jail, she said.
Her speech comes after a series of attacks by radical extremists across Europe this year, and on the same day as French MPs voted on an anti-terrorism law that could increase police powers.
Rudd also told the conference that social media and technology companies must do more to tackle online extremism.
That was a move welcomed by the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit group based in London and New York. “Amber Rudd is correct, extremist content is too easily accessible and not enough is being done presently to pressure Internet and social media companies to more quickly and permanently remove extremist and terrorist content,” said executive director David Ibsen.
Others warn that some of Rudd’s tougher policies may have potentially negative and unintended consequences.
“Whilst we understand the Home Secretary’s intentions in changing the law in terms of viewing extremist material and the punishment served, we should not be complacent to think that this will eradicate extremism from our society,” said Saida Mughal, CEO of the Jan Trust, an organization that works with women — mainly mothers — to counter online extremism. Mughal is also a survivor of the London 7/7 bombings in July 2015.
“It may even push some to the more old-fashioned ways of being radicalized such as groups and study circle. Our government needs to drive on the bottom-up approach where communities are fully equipped to change hearts and minds,” she said.
Rik Coolsaet, professor of international relations at Ghent University in Belgium, wrote in a report published Tuesday that more grassroots efforts across Europe — such as working with vulnerable young people — are needed to prevent radicalization.
“Prevention will always be cheaper than intervention,” he wrote in a report looking at the current and potentially dwindling influence of Daesh. Coolsaet questions whether the group even holds the online allure that it once did.
“Daesh’s global media output has decreased significantly, and the golden age of its Twitter presence has definitely passed,” he wrote.
Hamed El-Said, professor of international business and political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that filling up the UK’s prisons with those convicted of terror offenses is not the answer either.
“Prison alone is not a solution for this type of crime and it risks radicalizing individuals further to a point where they might start to believe that they are justified in resorting to violence. And that’s exactly what we want to avoid,” he said.
The UK prison system is not adequately equipped to prevent those convicted from becoming further radicalized, he said.
“Prison itself lacks comprehensive and effective deradicalization program that can achieve successfully rehabilitation and peaceful and compliant reintegration into society with minimum risks to the public,” he said.
During the first half of the year, only a handful of sentences of 15 years or more where handed out to defendants convicted of terror-related offenses, according to Home Office data.
The most common sentence length for defendants tried and convicted by the Crown Prosecution Service for a terrorism-related offense was between four and 10 years, with 26 defendants receiving this sentence in the first half of the year.