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Without the support of the service providers ‘Internet ASBOs’ face serious challenges - Prof Carsten Maple

Professor of Cyber Systems Engineering at WMG/University of Warwick has provided his analysis of the news that repeat offenders of anti-Semitism on social media could be given prevention orders:

This week an All Party Parliamentary Group has suggested that repeat offenders of anti-Semitism on social media should be given prevention orders, as can be used for those convicted of sexual offences.


It is important to recognise that this is a serious issue. The number of reported cases of anti-Semitic content has increased recently, and it is likely a small fraction of the total number of cases. Hate crimes such as this, and other crimes such as cyberstalking, can have a considerable impact on victims and the ubiquitous nature of the Internet can mean there is little escape for victims and can ensure that it pervades all aspects of life, personal and professional. It is important that the law considers the impact a crime can have on the victim.


The call to issue ‘Internet ASBOs’ (a term I particularly dislike, not least of all because we are not talking of anti-social behaviour here, we are talking of cases where a crime has been committed), to repeat, determined offenders is not well-founded. It is true that those convicted of a sexual offence can be considered to receive a Sexual Offences Prevention Order (SOPO) but in sexual offence cases, the offender will have been assigned a liaison officer. This officer will meet the offender regularly and as such, may have some suspicions that the offender is breaking the order and so an investigation into Internet use might ensue. 


What is not clear in the recommendations, of the Inquiry, is whether there would be a liaison officer assigned in cases of repeated online anti-Semitism. Without this understanding, that the liaison officer would have, there is a reliance on other intelligence being revealed. When such information comes to light, if indeed it does, then action can be taken and appropriate punishment be enacted. However, this is not a preventative measure. The breach of the order has occurred rather than been prevented. This is the problem with such orders – they cannot be preventative and as such do not achieve what they are apparently developed for. There are so many ways to access the Internet ‘anonymously’ (of course it isn’t anonymous, but can certainly be covertly) that unless an offender is under constant surveillance, we cannot be sure that they will not access social media.


If, the purpose of the proposed prevention order is rather to act as a deterrent, then this is not the most appropriate mechanism. The general user does not have a significant understanding of how the Internet works. Many people think they can make comments anonymously without being able to be traced. This is of course not the case. However, given the perception is that they will not be able to be traced, and that the ban cannot be enforced, the effectiveness as a deterrent is limited. It would be far more effective as a deterrent to consider the ease with which this crime can be committed, and the impact it can have on victims, and give tougher sentences to offenders. It should also be considered that rather than banning social media, education and rehabilitation may be more appropriate and effective for offenders.


 Another issue with the proposed move is the cooperation of the social media sites. However, this is non-trivial; it may require changes to the registration and authentication processes – something that industry may not wish to pay for. Making it more onerous and reliable is not immediately a business benefit. Without the support of the service providers, clearly the efficacy is limited. It should also be noted that in 2003 we were talking about MySpace not Facebook and Twitter is even more recent. Who knows what the social media platform of choice will be in five years. Whichever it is will also need to support the orders. Again, legislating for this is certainly not easy.


In summary, this is a growing problem and requires a considered answer. Whilst this reaction to events last year may feel appropriate, the devil is in the detail, and in this case the detail prevents the proposed solution being workable.


- About Professor Maple:

Prof Carsten Maple has an international research reputation and extensive experience of interacting with external agencies. He has published over 200 peer reviewed papers and is co-author of the UK Security Breach Investigations Report 2010, supported by the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Police Central e-crime Unit. Carsten is also co-author of Cyberstalking in the UK, a report supported by the Crown Prosecution Service and Network for Surviving Stalking. His research has attracted millions of pounds in funding and has been widely reported through the media. He has given evidence to government committees on issues of anonymity, child safety online. He works with various departments such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the College of Policing, Interpol, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, to name a few. Additionally he has advised executive and non-executive directors of public sector organisations and multibillion pound private organisations.