Police in two Australian states are considering a radical move to combat terrorism online: identifying “potential jihadists” and subjecting them to stringent measures that include restricting their movements, establishing curfews, and banning them from using the Internet entirely.
The measures, proposed by Victoria Police, are a troubling and deeply flawed attempt at addressing the problem of radicalization. Under the proposal, counterterrorism officers would be able to apply for Community Protection Intervention Orders for anyone deemed to have been radicalized, even if they were not planning an attack or preparing to fight overseas. While exact details of the proposal were not available on the Victoria Police website, they appear to leave considerable room for interpretation when obtaining the orders.
Australian police have been on alert after several recent incidents, including the recruitment by ISIS of a Melbourne teen who had reportedly used Internet forums to gather information, and a deadly hostage crisis in Sydney in December 2014, carried out by a man with extremist Islamist views.
Fears over domestic terrorism have contributed, according to five former Victoria state police chiefs, to a “fortress mentality” that is counterproductive to effective policing. Urging an independent review of policing policy in Victoria, the police chiefs said in an open letter: “This is…a time when engagement with the community in general and youth in particular has never been more important, particularly given terrorist acts are often perpetrated by youth.”
Despite its flaws, the proposal has elicited a range of perspectives from Australian law enforcement officials. Queensland’s Attorney General Yvette D’Ath told the Australian she would be happy to consider any such proposal to fight against terrorism, though Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart was more circumspect, saying it was up to the will of the people in balancing individual rights and broader community safety. On the other side of the spectrum, South Australia’s Attorney General John Rau asserted the police in South Australia have no plans to ask for such a measure, saying “There may be constitutional issues with state and commonwealth powers that need to be considered. A consistent national approach would seem desirable.”
The proposal has also been heavily critiqued by the wider community in Victoria. "The University of Melbourne’s Dr. David Malet said: “I think this proposal is very likely to backfire spectacularly,” adding “That is only going to heighten the sense of alienation that those most likely to consume radical propaganda feel, while giving groups like Islamic State a talking point to tell these young people, ‘You’re being targeted for being who you are and for wanting to use the Internet to seek the truth’.” Islamic Council of Victoria Spokesman Kuranda Seyit agreed that the measures would in effect worsen the issue. “The main concern here is about how to assess somebody and not drive that young person into being further isolated. These are the issues that we need to be very, very careful about."
As proof that bad ideas never die, similar speech restrictive measures have been considered in a number of other countries in the effort to combat terrorism:
- France invoked a recently enacted law to censor several websites deemed to incite or glorify terrorism shortly after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo
- Turkey recently passed an omnibus bill allowing its telecommunications regulator to block or remove online content without the need for a court order
- The UK is considering a “Snooper’s Charter” bill that would allow it to use deep packet inspection probes to collect user data from communications service providers.
But even among these poorly thought-out bills, Victoria’s proposal stands out for its sheer wrongheadedness and its targeting of individuals deemed to be high-risk by police with little oversight.