The FitWatch Conundrum

During the course of today certain sections of the blogosphere including one of my regular favourite reads, Longrider, have been up in arms about what appears to be a disturbing example of police exceeding and misrepresenting their authority.

Without applying for, or being in possession of, a court order, an Acting Detective Inspector from the Met Police’s CO11 department requested an ISP shut down the FitWatch website because:

In connection with our criminal investigation into registration or use of the domain name set out in this letter, we hereby confirm that:

• The domain is being used to undertake criminal activities

Attempting to Pervert the Course of Justice, contrary to Common Law We hereby request [redacted] to de-host this website for a minimum period of 12 months.

The site in question, FitWatch, styles itself as standing against the activities and behaviour of police Forward Intelligence Teams. Continuing in the same manner the site’s editor(s) published advice to those people involved in violence during the student protests in London. In addition to advising students who were engaged in unlawful activity not to give themselves in and to change their appearance, the advice also recommends such individuals dispose of the clothing they were wearing to hinder identification and remove the possibility of the clothing being used as identification evidence. It is this that the police have taken exception to and used as justification for their actions as detailed below:

REASON FOR CLOSURE

This website are committing offences of attempting to pervert the Course of Justice under Common Law.

The website is providing explicit advice to offenders following a major demonstration in Central London. The demonstration was marred by violence and several subjects have already been arrested with a major police operation underway to identify and arrest further offenders.

The person controlling these websites has posted material held to be contrary to Common Law within the UK.

I hope everyone who was engaged in violence or criminal behaviour during the student protest is caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But what is written above will be deeply disturbing to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the law, for here the police are presenting as a fact something that is only alleged until a court determines otherwise.  Note that last sentence – ‘held to be contrary to Common Law‘. Held by whom? That is the commonly accepted legal language for a matter that has been put before a court and judged upon. Despite there being none, the Acting Detective Inspector has deliberately given the impression that his request has legal force. As such the ISP immediately shut down the site.

A pertinent question would be, since when did the police take over the role of the judiciary? No doubt this officer feels the end justifies the means, but where does that slippery slope end? Will blogs like this be shut down if it makes a criticism a police officer takes exception to? Will politicians or civil servants task the police with getting sites closed down if they share inconvenient or embarrassing information? Could such action be used to silence opponents of, say, EU membership? What about climate change?

Make no mistake, what FitWatch did was ill advised and leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. They clearly want people who committed criminal acts to get away with what they did. At the very least no one could dispute they are trying to offer support and advice to people who are trying to evade justice. But it does not follow FitWatch have broken the law. The advice is no different to what a legal representative would say in a private consultation with a client and it is only the view of a police officer that such advice is illegal.

It is worrying in the extreme that police officers feel able to exceed their authority and misrepresent themselves in this way to censor speech or silence dissent. There must be consequences for this unacceptable over reach.


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