Should using the Web be a crime?

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

I think it’s safe to say that the Internet is the greatest tool for the distribution of ideas ever invented. Unfortunately, that means it is also the greatest tool for the distribution of bad ideas — including the idea that people should be killed for their beliefs (for more on dangerous “viral” ideas, check out this video of a talk philosopher Dan Dennett gave to the TED conference).

But should posting those kinds of ideas on the Web be a crime? It looks as though it has become one in Britain.

snipshot_e414n6f4963t.jpgIn the first case of its kind, three young men in Britain have been sentenced to as many as 10 years in jail for being what the court called “cyber jihadis” — engaging in a sophisticated campaign to convince other radical Muslims that they should kill non-believers and conduct various acts of terrorism. The three ran a network of websites from London, and were found with CDs and other material that instructed would-be terrorists in how to build pipe bombs, as well as films that showed kidnapping victims being beheaded.

Inciting people to commit acts of violence, or fomenting hatred against an identifiable group, is seen as a crime in many countries (including Canada). But what constitutes incitement to violence or inciting hatred against a group?

There are literally tens of thousands of websites, blogs, e-mail newsletters, IRC groups and chat forums in which people spew all sorts of hatred towards identifiable groups — homosexuals, Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, you name it. Should all of those people be convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison time?

snipshot_e4r6ruo5m4t.jpgThe judge in the British case said in his decision that none of the men in question had even come close to carrying out any acts of violence themselves, although they did their best to stir up violent feelings among others and encourage them to engage in violence. Referring to one of the young men, the judge said that he “came no closer to a bomb or a firearm than a computer keyboard.” Two of the men involved in this conspirary had never even met. Early on in the trial, the judge admitted that: “The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a website is. I haven’t quite grasped the concepts.”

The charge against the men is also worded in an almost bizarrely roundabout way: they admitted to “inciting another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the United Kingdom which would, if committed in England and Wales, constitute murder.” In other words, they admitted to trying to convince someone to do something somewhere outside the UK that — if done inside the UK — would have constituted murder.

That’s a pretty large legal net, in which you could catch a lot more than just a few “cyber-jihadis.” Jailing the men in question didn’t require such a charge either: all three admitted to engaging in a $3.6-million conspiracy to defraud banks and credit-card companies to finance their operation, a crime that would have been enough to put them away for some time.