We can get as upset with Google as we like - we're not going anywhere

Google Reader - the aftermath.

It begins harmlessly enough. You're chatting to a friend, a neighbour perhaps, over the garden fence. Suddenly there is a huge crash from inside the house. Oh my god - the BABY! You go inside and immediately fall over a large pile of books. There are books everywhere - unsurprising, you realise, as all your bookshelves have mysteriously vanished. The floor is covered, and Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus along with the full EL James trilogy have migrated from behind your (unread) copy of "Wolf Hall" and are now displayed at the top of the pile.

There's a note. It says "We know your bookshelves had a devoted following who will be very sad to see them go. We're sad too. There are two simple reasons for this: usage of your bookshelves have declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience. Love from Google."

You look around and realise (with an element of disgust at the unimaginative cliche) that your house has in fact been built on sand.

You find a pencil and start a reply to the note.

I'm OUTRAGED at the change, and will be moving out with immedi...

But hang on. Where would you go? You've got nowhere to go. For several years now you've lived in this house. The thought of moving into a thin-walled shack, to Bing, or Yahoo, insulated with the paper torn from advert posters is horrible. No - you'll just have to suck it up. Head bowed, you find a plastic bag and start tidying up the books.

And here we go again. As I wrote about last week, Google reader is being killed off, and people are unhappy about it. They will no longer be able to trust Google, they say  - which will make it harder for Google to get them to use new features, like Keep, which it brought out yesterday.

As John Hempton says:

Google is in the process of abandoning its mission. Google's stated mission is to organize all the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. RSS is a way that a small number of us organize our information. Google no longer cares. It seems what they care about is mass-markets...

According to him, this is Google's problem: it makes financial sense for Google not to have Reader. After all, Reader doesn't make money or create opportunities to make money. However, the move to abandon Reader is itself financially risky. It will affect how willing Google consumers are to adopt new features.

Here's the Economist:

The more people used Reader, the more attractive it was to have an RSS feed and to write posts in feed-friendly ways. And the more people provided RSS content and structured online interactions around the blogs that pass through RSS, the more attractive it became to be a part of that ecosystem. If you then pull away the product at the heart of that system, you end up causing significant disruption, assuming there aren't good alternatives available

The trouble is that there aren't good alternatives - not to Google as a whole. As I wrote back in Feburary, Facebook, Twitter and Google are all at various stages of the tipping point between user-orientated and profit-orientated, and every so often, users realise what is happening and get upset about it. But the reason the companies are doing this is because they can. We're probably not going anywhere.

Google Reader is closing down. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.