Will the United Kingdom’s Online Harms White Paper Curb Extremism but Allow Expression?

On April 8, Theresa May turned to Twitter to make a bold statement. Upon the release of the United Kingdom’s Online Harms White Paper, a tweet noted, “The era of social media companies regulating themselves is over.” The 102-page policy document urges the establishment of new regulations which will hold all social media companies liable for harmful and extremist content. Is this a sensible way to deal with digital extremism?

Social media companies and platforms have a part to play in making the internet a safer place. In order to combat harmful content, the United Kingdom seeks to hold companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter responsible. Authorities in the United Kingdom plan to enforce penalties for harmful content, which would be a fine of 4% of global turnover or 20 million euro ($23 million), whichever is greater.

In addition to the fines, the United Kingdom aspires to create a regulatory body, and enact bans and restrictions on user content, limiting what citizens can view. Regulations on internet freedoms and bans will undoubtedly anger citizens. Countries such as Russia and China have similar authoritarian beliefs. Liberal democratic nations adopting parallel legislation potentially legitimizes such restrictions and can be viewed as a victory for extremists.

Overreaction by the government of the United Kingdom has extremely detrimental consequences. Changing online regulations and censoring citizens is a flawed legislative move. Passing this particular law encourages extremists because it shows their actions initiate socio-political change and cause legislative action. Further, it provokes pessimism in financial markets by causing a greater risk for tech startups.

Proactive responses to digital extremism and hoping to make the internet a safer place are at the core of the United Kingdom’s argument. The May government is correct in its mission, but its execution needs more work. Fining social media companies and censorship of user content seems more like a punishment rather than a solution.

The United Kingdom is faced with a few considerations should it proceed with the proposed White Paper. Public safety is of the utmost importance, as is the ability of free expression. Fining companies for the negligence of extreme content is justifiable. As extreme content lingers, it continues to spread. Thus, social media platforms are directly responsible for stopping hateful and extremist messaging.

Major social media companies — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — must update their Terms of Service and ask all users to act as moderators. If content appears to be approaching an extreme or violent conclusion, it should be reported by the community. False reports regarding extreme content should have penalties as well, in order to ensure users are being responsible. This avenue permits millions to help protect cyberspace on their own terms. It would allow citizens to come together to combat online hate, which presents a powerful message against extremism.

If the UK plans on changing its online usage and how its users interact in online spaces, the people should have a say. The solutions in the United Kingdom’s Online Harms White Paper need to be more focused. The 12 weeks of consultation have begun and will end July 1st.

Currently, the resolutions to the proposed issues are very broad and seem severe. The best way to ensure a safer internet space is to create a unified community of users. Group accountability will help ensure the internet is a safer place as the people of the United Kingdom define it. This could be the beginning of a safer internet and a model for other countries.

No-Deal Brexit: Implications for Transnational Security

Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave EU and Union flags opposite the Houses of Parliament, in London, Britain, June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

 As the threat of a no-deal Brexit looms closer, it is becoming increasingly clear that such a scenario would significantly hamper counterterrorism efforts in both the United Kingdom and Europe.

As an EU member, the UK is party to European institutions such as the European Arrest Warrant, a system of warrants valid throughout the European Union, and Europol, the EU-wide law-enforcement body that combats terror and organized crime. The UK also receives additional European data including fingerprints, DNA, and passenger flight information. Should it leave the EU without a deal establishing a continued partnership on such initiatives, it will lose access to European intelligence and risk becoming unaware of potential terrorist threats within their own borders.

This will adversely impact Europe as well. For every suspect arrested on a European Arrest Warrant, British authorities arrest eight EAW suspects from other states, so the benefit to European countries from British forces is huge. Given the extensive travel between Europe and the UK, it is critical that the two cooperate on intelligence so that no criminal may slip through borders unnoticed. Should this cooperation end, it is likely dangerous individuals will cross between Britain and Europe without notice.

If no deal codifies the partnership between British and European law enforcement, then both the EU and the UK are in an extremely risky position. To avoid the possibility of turning the UK into a de facto safe haven for European criminals, a no-deal Brexit must be avoided, and the UK must negotiate a continued partnership with the European Union.

Brexit and Northern Ireland, Troubles Afoot?

As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union in March 2019 there remain many who are concerned about what this will mean for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Twenty years after the end of the ethno-national Protestant and Catholic paramilitary conflict known as The Troubles, the British Isles once more fear the start of the terrorist violence. In 2016, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, one of the most pressing questions regarded what to do with Ireland and Northern Ireland border – and how to keep violence from reemerging there.

The Troubles were a 30 year (1968 – 1998) ethno-conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The two sides to this territorial conflict had distinct visions for Northern Ireland: the majority Unionist Protestants fought to keep Northern Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.

While the minority Catholic Unionists fought to unite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 3,600 people were killed, thousands more were injured, and an intolerable unease lingered for three decades. 

Fears of Troubles-era violence and the paramilitary groups’ reemergence grow daily as Brexit negotiations continue. According to the United Kingdom’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency, MI5, Northern Ireland violence is now classified as severe, indicating the belief that chances of attacks in the region are high. In Britain the threat level is moderate.

Violence in Northern Ireland never ended completely. Despite the Good Friday Agreement, radical Protestants and IRA splinter groups (such as New IRA, formerly known as Real IRA) consistently, violently attack one other.

Examples of such attacks include early July attacks in Derry wherein a group of boys, some as young as eight, fired AK-47 rifles and threw IEDs at police officers. The attacks were claimed by New IRA. On the other side, an office at the Irish Republican party Sinn Fein was targeted in an arson attack. No one was harmed, and no one claimed the attack, but the party publicly stated that the attack was anti-democratic.

There is legitimate concern that Brexit negotiation tensions will exacerbate this unending Troubles Epilogue, provoking broader terror operations and ubiquitous violence. But what is it about these negotiations that they can re-ignite great contention in Ireland? 

The reintroduction of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a border where citizens from both countries would have to go through customs to enter the other side. Among other things, The Good Friday Agreement stipulated that the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland border remain open to the point of figurative invisibility. No stopping travelers and traders, in other words, at Customs to awkwardly hand-over paperwork.

Brexit negotiators have borne this in mind, but lately, news outlets, political analysts, and political leaders alike opine that there is a growing possibility of a “No Deal Brexit.” Such a thing would mean the UK and EU agreed to shrug off the unresolved nature of the border problem and proceed regardless, triggering the installation of a hard border – imagine what this will do to trade alone.

According to recently released technical papers, the British government’s publicly stated opinion on trade and travel hardships caused by a prospective hard border boils down to, “…ask Dublin.” The rhetoric exasperates leaders on both sides unsettled by a lack of deference for the seminal Good Friday Agreement.

The looming threat of a No Deal Brexit is not the only cause for concern. A bill passing through Parliament allows for stops and searches within a mile of the Irish border in Northern Ireland for purposes of combating terror. Unsurprisingly, there has been backlash over this bill in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Fears are based on the growing perception that the British government isn’t even interested in putting a good face on violating the Good Friday Agreement’s spirit which seeks to defuse tension rather than fuel it with hard borders. London must redouble its investment in resolving the border question lest it reignites an old fire. With tensions on the rise and violence already occurring in the area, the scars of the past are opening. A No Deal Brexit could be a straight shot to terrorism’s reappearance on the British Isles.

Picture by Margaret McLaughlin


The United Kingdom and the Challenge of Far-Right Ideologies

Huge crowds: Hundreds gathered in a show of solidarity

Participants gather during a vigil near the Finsbury Park Mosque, the scene of Darren Osborne’s vehicular terrorist attack. [1]

On June 19, 2016, Darren Osborne, motivated by anger about the terror attacks in the United Kingdom, drove his vehicle into a group of Muslim worshipers outside the Finsbury Park Mosque.  Osborne killed one, Makram Ali, and injured nine others. Ali had collapsed on the sidewalk prior to the attack and a group of Muslims had stopped to lend assistance. While the group was providing aid, Osborne struck with his vehicle.  Ali died at the scene.

On February 1, 2018, a British court decided Osborne’s fate. He was found guilty. Osborne was convicted of murder and attempted murder. Evidence presented during the trial showed that Osborne had recently become radicalized from anti-Muslim extremism propaganda. Justice Bobbie Cheema-Grubb stated that “[Osborne’s action] was a terrorist attack. [He] intended to kill.” [2] Osborne was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 43 years.  

This attack represents another in an ongoing problem of radical right-wing attacks occurring in Great Britain. In June 2016, Helen Joanne (Jo) Cox, a Member of Parliament, was murdered by a far-right extremist. Cox was a member of the Labour Party, who, prior to the Brexit referendum, advocated for the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union. Her killer, Thomas Mair, claimed to be a political activist and witnesses claimed he had shouted, “This is for Britain,” when he attacked Cox [3]. Prior to the attack, Mair had reviewed white-nationalist websites and followed far-right political leaders.

These incidents were not the first acts of far-right extremism in the United Kingdom.  They may very well not be the last.

The United Kingdom has witnessed the rise of far-right groups that promote nationalist and anti-Muslim ideologies. National Action, which celebrated Jo Cox’s murder, became the first far-right group to be described as a terrorist organization in the United Kingdom [4]. Far-right groups like the English Defense League and Britain First have staged anti-Muslim protests. Britain First’s leaders, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were arrested and charged in Belfast, Northern Ireland for “using threatening, abusive, insulting words or behavior.” [5] The United Kingdom, unlike the United States, has very stringent laws governing hate speech and its promotion in public spaces.

A message and floral tributes for Jo Cox

Mourners pay respects and leave messages outside Parliament Square following the death of MP Jo Cox. [6]

Hate speech is strongly prohibited in the United Kingdom. In the United States, you can stand on a street corner and champion whatever ideology you believe is appropriate.  An individual can advocate religious condemnations, shout racial epithets, or denigrate a particular nationality. The United Kingdom, however, prohibits this type of commentary in public spheres [7]. Individuals in the United Kingdom can still preach their ideologies, however, they risk a greater likelihood of being arrested for incitement. Leaders of far-right movements face possible arrest and imprisonment when they move their anti-immigrant and anti-Islam views into the public arena.

To be clear, being a far-right political group does not make an organization a terrorist group. Even advocating racial or religious prejudice does not necessarily make yours a terrorist group. However, the promotion of hateful ideologies can lead members to take matters into their own hands with violent consequences. Britain First may condemn the actions of individuals like Thomas Mair [8], but condemnation does not absolve them of previously advocating hate against a community or faith.

The internet provides a platform for spreading far-right extremist ideology.  The United Kingdom’s far-right platforms are immediately recognizable alongside the writings and work of other far-right organizations across the globe such as American white-supremacist groups and neo-Nazi movements. The internet offers an extensive platform to incite individuals to perpetrate hate crimes and terrorist acts against different communities.

The United Kingdom has a long, violent past with terrorism. Northern Irish terrorism remained an ever-present danger from the 1970s until the 2000s.  Terrorists perpetrated notable violent attacks in the 2000s including the London bombings. These attacks continue into the present with lone-wolf stabbings and vehicular assaults. Far-right extremism in the United Kingdom, however, persists, overlapping with these other periods of terrorist activity. Far-right organizations have not limited their violence to one faith or creed. The attacks on MP Jo Cox and Makrim Ali demonstrate that domestic politicians and members of other religious faiths are both viable targets.

Terrorism is a tactic used in pursuit of a political goal: to generate fear and intimidation in a specific population. Far-right terrorist actors engage in these attacks to promote their brand of politics. Osborne perpetrated his vehicular attack in pursuit of an anti-Muslim agenda. Mair shot and stabbed a Member of Parliament in pursuit of a nationalist agenda. Far-right movements are growing in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe. Governments need to assess where all types of terrorists, foreign or domestic, come from and combat the environments in which their extremist ideologies arise.



[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-40324590
[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42920929
[3] https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/16/europe/british-mp-jo-cox-attacked/index.html
[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/12/neo-nazi-group-national-action-banned-by-uk-home-secretary
[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/14/britain-first-leader-paul-golding-arrested-in-belfast
[6] https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/16/europe/british-mp-jo-cox-attacked/index.html
[7] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/4/pdfs/ukpga_20080004_en.pdf
[8] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/16/labour-mp-jo-cox-shot-in-leeds-witnesses-report/