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Should bomb-making websites be treated with the same disgust as child pornography?

"Honestly, I was just making a cake."

“Honestly, I was just making a cake.”

Today British news headlines reported how Google and Internet service providers are being urged to do more to block child pornography.  This call comes after details of the murder of April Jones emerged. Mark Bridger, who was jailed for a whole-life term yesterday having been found guilty of killing the five-year-old girl in October of last year, was reported to have searched for images of child abuse and rape.

The debate was further bolstered when John Carr, a Government adviser and member of the Internet Task Force on Child Protection, called for Google to show “moral leadership” and institute a default block on pornography on its search engine. Clearly, it is a pressing issue that needs serious consideration. But what about other equally destructive content that is also available on the web?

Bomb-making websites, for instance. Should governments be imposing strict blocks on sites that could teach its citizens how to make killer weapons at home? Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Bombers, were able to construct their home made bombs thanks to material readily available online.  Yet, in the aftermath of the attacks in Boston there was no outcry to ban sites which carry this information.

Admittedly, US law prohibits the publication of bomb making material online for the purpose of committing a federal crime.  18 USC 842 ‘Unlawful Acts’ says it is illegal to “to teach or demonstrate the making or use of an explosive, a destructive device, or a weapon of mass destruction… ” but this rule seems to result in precious little action on the part of the US authorities.

The truth is that there are a number of factors that make the censoring of web activities incredibly hard.

In the EU, the banning of bomb-making websites was seen by some to infringe member states’ belief in the right to free speech and expression.  And disconnecting a web site with immediate effect is currently possible only in a minority of EU states. Other complications also arise in attempting to monitor websites that promote violence.  When German police recently arrested three men suspected of a major bomb plot, politicians at the time called for greater powers to monitor computers. Germany’s top appeals court, however, overruled their pleas, stating that the clandestine monitoring of computers by police is illegal.

Another thorny issue is encountered when it is realised that the dangerous information of bomb-making out there is often closer to basic chemistry than a recipe for an actual IED.  There are resources online that are not necessarily linked to terrorist organisations but are posted by members of the public.  For instance, in a desk-based exercise, we found, within ten seconds of searching, a highly lethal recipe for making an acetone peroxide-based IED.  But the site itself could have been a resource for a Chemistry student as well as a terrorist.

That is not to say efforts cannot be made to restrict such sites. Many nations, for example, already have blocks on websites that contain specific content. Nazism or Holocaust denial websites are blocked in France and Germany and child pornography sites are blocked in many nations around the world.  The technology is there to allow governments to make the decision to prevent certain information being accessed.

The debate on censorship often falls into that of the issue of freedom of information and freedom of expression.  But this should not cloud common sense.  It is clear in the national interest that a recipe for bomb making should not be readily available to anyone with access to the Internet, especially when taking into account the simplicity of obtaining the materials needed.

In the UK, we have the Internet Watch Foundation, a government supported charity that works on collating information on websites that carry banned or obscene material. They work with the government to remove offensive sites from the online community.  At present their purview only extends to criminally obscene and abusive imagery according to their website. Perhaps it should extend further.

As more and more information is spread through social media and chat rooms, governments find it harder to get a grip on the situation.  Currently, the hosting of information on bomb making is not illegal.  Nor is it illegal to download that information. Instead, unlike with child pornography, possession is not illegal. Rather it is the user’s intent that is seen by the authorities to be of primary interest.

Unfortunately, this intent is often realised too late, once the real damage has been done.