( AP ) - Britain's top law-and-order official wants extremist content off the Web, saying Thursday she intends to deny Islamist ideologues the use of a key recruitment tool.
But Internet service providers and experts say they could be accused of corporate censorship and face a mess of lawsuits if they must carry out any government order to aggressively police the Internet.
British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, giving the keynote speech at a conference on radicalization and political violence, said "the Internet is not a no-go area for government." She compared her government's plan to counter extremism on the Internet to its long-standing campaign against pedophiles and child pornography online.
"If we are ready and willing to take action to stop the grooming of vulnerable young people on social-networking sites, then I believe we should also take action against those who groom vulnerable people for the purposes of violent extremism.
"Where there is illegal material on the Net, I want it removed," she said.
But how? And who would do the removing? Smith did not go into details, saying only that she was working closely with the communications industry. Service providers, for their part, were not enthusiastic.
Britain's Internet Service Provider Association, which represents major service providers such as BT Group PLC and the U.K. arms of Time Warner Inc.'s AOL and Yahoo Inc., said the most troublesome Web sites were hosted abroad, where the government's writ did not carry in any case.
And even if sites suspected of inciting terror were hosted in Britain, the ISPA said its members had neither the competence nor the desire to rule on whether a particular site was illegal.
Attempts to do so, the group said, amount to corporate censorship and could subject service providers to lawsuits and accusations of breaking free-speech laws.
Unlike the case with child pornography, which is often easily recognizable by sight, policing terror-related Web sites requires subjective judgments on whether a foreign-language text was inciting anything or anyone, the ISPA contends.
Experts agreed, saying terror-related material was much more difficult to identify unambiguously, and that it would be difficult to extend Britain's strict anti-child pornography regime - which includes censoring parts of the Web known as pedophile hot spots - to sites that were merely carrying opinions, no matter how offensive.
Increasingly, in any case, incitement and propaganda work was taking place on closed, password-protected forums. Given that context, Ian Brown, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said the idea of "removing" anything from the Internet was not realistic.