On the recent trial run of our new course on Filtering and Monitoring we invited students to discuss the Home Office requirement to “consider the use of filters as part of their overall strategy to prevent people being drawn into terrorism“. HEFCE’s recent update of their monitoring framework for Higher Education providers in England asks them to provide “specific comment on their approach to web filtering in relation to the Prevent duty” (para.43).
Neither question is straightforward. Blocking websites may not be the most effective way to deliver the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act’s objective of preventing people being drawn into terrorism. The Act itself recognises that that objective needs to be balanced against HE providers’ duties to ensure free speech and academic freedom. Even within the goal of helping students avoid or escape radicalisation, other ways of using technology – for example monitoring for and responding to patterns of risky behaviour rather than forcing such behaviour to take place out-of-sight – may be more effective. Or the risk may be better addressed by spending effort and money on human, rather than technological, approaches to the problem.
I suspect what HEFCE are actually looking for is evidence that providers have, indeed, considered these various balances in deciding on the approach they will take. HEFCE’s first note on Action Plans (page 3 of the Advice Note) asks whether “actions are appropriate to the provider’s own context” and warns that “providers should ensure that they have considered carefully what will work for their organisation”. This seems much more concerned with the process that has been used to determine each individual provider’s “overall strategy” than with whether any particular tools have or have not been adopted.