It’s difficult to know what to make of this new Metropolitan Police counterterrorism pilot scheme in north London, announced in the press last week:
Anti-Terror Police Seek Help from Internet Cafes, BBC News, 25 March 2010
Police battling the threat of terrorism have unveiled a new tactic – they are targeting internet cafes. As evidence suggests that several people convicted with terrorism acts have visited internet cafes while plotting their crimes, the Metropolitan Police are trialling a new initiative in which owners agree to monitor what customers are looking at, and report any suspect activity to police.
The visit by two policemen and a community support officer is unannounced – but this is not a raid. Instead they are here at an internet cafe in Camden in London as part of a new programme in the government’s £140m Prevent strategy to help counterterrorism.
The new initiative involves getting internet cafe owners to monitor the websites their customers view and to pass on any worries over suspicious activity to the police.
Critics claim this is ‘another step in the direction of creating a society of total surveillance’. Given the recent Community and Local Government Committee report on problems with Prevent, this project will look to many like another attempt to monitor Muslims’ behaviour. The BBC goes on to quote more from the author of these concerns, Arun Kundnani of the Institute of Race Relations:
What is dangerous about this initiative is that it does not just focus on preventing access to illegal material but also material that is defined as ‘extremist’ without offering an objective definition of what that is. It thus potentially criminalises people for accessing material that is legal but which expresses religious and political opinions that police officers find unacceptable.
This is a good point but it is not constables in the front line of this endeavour but internet cafe owners and users. This is another delegation of state responsibilities to the populace, which sounds like an attractive proposition but is precisely the opposite. I find it difficult to see why this is significantly different to reporting someone for reading a ‘seditious’-looking book on the Underground.
The police say that ‘the internet cafe programme is not about arresting people, but more to determine if their users need what they term as “support”’. This is distinctly problematic. What this says to the casual observer is not that this is a law enforcement issue but a social engineering one. If the intention is to shape people towards the norms engendered by the last ten years of counterterrorism legislation as regards what we are allowed to access on the internet, we should perhaps wonder about the legitimacy of such measures when another parliamentary committee last week called for a ‘thorough going, evidence-based review of the necessity for and proportionality of all the counter-terrorism legislation’ passed since 9/11.
When I lived in Egypt, a country famous for its political pluralism, I had frequent cause to use internet cafes. I vividly remember the first one I used in downtown Cairo in about 2004. Pinned to each wall behind the monitors were laminated posters which said, ‘Patrons are asked to refrain from accessing material which deals with sex, religion, or politics’. Whilst the UK has a very long way to go before it is even remotely as bad as Egypt with respect to communication rights, the new Met scheme will use posters and screensavers to ‘tell people that what they’re doing is not on’. Not illegal, just ‘not on’. Be careful: this time, somebody actually is watching you.