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section heading icon     overview

This note considers sedition and treason law, including government responses to seditious content on the net and prohibitions on membership of or support for particular organisations.

It covers -

  • this introduction
  • concepts and controversies - key questions and points of entry to the literature
  • Australia - the shape of Australian treason and sedition law
  • UK treason and sedition law
  • Canada and New Zealand law
  • US treason and sedition law
  • Europe - treason and sedition on the Continent
  • elsewhere - law in other jurisdictions
  • cases - major cases in Australia and News Zealand
  • online - sedition in the online environment
  • blacklists - prohibited organisations and association
  • mutiny - disobedience by the armed forces and police
  • landmarks

It supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding censorship, hate sites, defamation, secrecy, privacy, security and surveillance.

subsection heading icon     introduction

Recent concerns about terrorism have been resulted in calls for action against websites and online fora that preach hatred, contain exhortations to violence against states or individuals, aid recruiting or fundraising by terrorist organisations, or feature guidance about activities such as bombmaking.

Those calls reflect characterisations - often lurid - of the net as a home for terrorists and the 'next frontier' for conflict or as a vulnerable 'critical information infrastructure' threatened by cyberwarfare. They embody expectations that law enforcement bodies can identify sites/fora, authors and readers. They include suggestions that governments and agents such as ISPs should restrict online and offline expression, for example suppressing offensive/dangerous sites under existing or new law regarding censorship, sedition and hate-speech.

They are complemented by suggestions for increased surveillance of telecommunications. Such suggestions include strengthening of monitoring schemes such Echelon, exemptions in privacy legislation and requirements that regulatory chokepoints such as ISPs retain traffic or other customer data for several years.

Some suggestions have been criticised as 'gesture politics' or founded on misrepresentations of particular threats and solutions. Others have been criticised as inconsistent with free speech and other civil liberties, improperly restricting ideas rather than actions.

subsection heading icon     technologies of freedom?

Ithiel de Sola Pool spoke of electronic media - particularly the 'new media' - as 'technologies of freedom'. For those on one side of the regulatory divide all media were instead potentially -

  • technologies of subversion - inciting discontent, asking and answering questions, offering access to tools such as bombs (or, as explosively, birth control) and to examples of how those tools might be used, enabling malcontents to come together to attack or overthrow the state
  • technologies of repression - mechanisms for producing a false consciousness and for surveillance of friend and foe alike.

In responding to perceived online dangers governments and others have unsurprisingly turned to past legislation and administrative practice.

subsection heading icon     sedition before the net

Historically the legal codes of most nations have featured explicit restrictions on sedition, ie against advocacy of overthrowing those in power or merely disrespect for their persons and status. Those restrictions have often been broad-ranging and selectively applied. They have often been complemented by legislation that is specific to particular organisations, causes or media.

In the West such restrictions have waxed and waned, reflecting anxieties about jacobinism, anarchism, fascism, pacificism, communism, and contemporary terrorism.

They have also evolved over the past 500 years. Notions of treason, sedition and revolt in early modern western states centred on the monarch, encompassing offences such as taking up arms against the king, refusing to recognise the monarch's authority (eg refusing to pay taxes, respect magistrates or disperse when ordered) and sleeping with the king's wife. They also encompassed writing, publishing and disseminating treasonous libels - often broadly construed as including denial of a monarch's legitimacy and questions about a particular religious orthodoxy (as the monarch was God's vicegerent on earth).

Those states have grappled with questions about action, idea, association and responsibility. Most have increasingly differentiated between ideas - "it is not the task of government to discern what is in mens' hearts " - and action, while being ambivalent about speech and association. Some for example have proscribed specific organisations and even sought to criminalise membership, on the basis that membership signals a commitment to overthrow the established order and an acceptance of responsibility for actions by individual members.

Legislation under George III for example made it an offence to use any words to excite hatred and contempt of the king, government or constitution, particularly speech that might have a "tendency" to cause disloyalty in the armed forces. More recently the UK government banned representatives of the IRA from speaking on British television.

Restrictions in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, US and elsewhere over the past century have encompassed the -

  • proscription of specific organisations
  • criminalisation of particular speech (eg attempting to subvert a nation's armed forces and law enforcement personnel, advocacy of pacifism during times of war or criticism of action by a government and the nation's allies)
  • censorship of publications and broadcasts as likely to threaten public order

Recent use of sedition law has not been confined to those who practice violence. In Singapore and Malaysia it, along with defamation action, has has been used to dampen criticism by journalists and opposition politicians. In China it has been used against the Falun Gong sect and against those who dare to question the Communist Party's monopoly of power. It provides for criminal sanctions against critics of the Ba'ath Party in Syria. In Tonga and Saudi Arabia it has been used to squelch comment on endemic corruption among the ruling families.

subsection heading icon     terror online

What is the shape of 'terror online'? Observers have broadly differentiated between sites/fora that -

  • provide technical information that facilitates bombmaking or other violence
  • feature exhortations to violence, whether general or relating to a specific individual
  • call for recruitment or provision of financial and other support
  • more broadly represent views of particular individuals and organisations

The diffuseness of that categorisation means that there are no definitive figures about the number of sites/fora; claims by particular agencies and authors should be treated with some circumspection. We have pointed to some estimates in discussing online hate sites. As of 2004 one observer counted around 14,000 online fatwas.

Figures on the audience for such sites are more problematical. The size and demographics of the audiences accessing the content is unclear. One reason is that commercial metrics services are strongly biased towards major sites - particularly those in the 'anglosphere ' - and to those with a business orientation (eg that feature advertising or sell goods/services).

The impact of the sites is also unclear. Arguably for a mass audience few are more persuasive than traditional print media and broadcast. They may, however, confer a legitimacy on particular organisations or reinforce membership of a particular community. Particular sites/fora are not oriented towards a mass audience but are instead presumably targeted at practitioners of the propaganda of the deed.

There is disagreement about the appropriateness and effectiveness of particular responses to 'extreme' online content. One major argument against suppression of sites, fora and statements is that restriction is antithetical to core democratic and liberal values of free speech (or merely to frameworks such as the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms (EHCR)).

That argument is complemented by suggestions that authors/publishers will go jurisdiction shopping - for example if your hate site is banned in the UK or Germany you will simple host in the US, relying on that nation's judicial support for free speech - or that suppression merely feeds the anxieties and resentments that breed terrorism.

Others argue that suppression in penalising - even criminalising - ideas and association rather than actions requires recourse to archaic law (eg enactments dealing with treason), pervasive surveillance of law-abiding citizens and erosion of traditional boundaries between church and state.

Others still argue that overly-broad restrictions will result in takedown of 'bombmaking' sites but not inhibit access to more detailed information in print formats. Some ask whether someone can be charged with inciting violence if no violent act ensues. Will penalties apply if someone did act violently based on another's statements but the author did not intend to provoke the response?

Those criticisms have provoked a range of rejoinders, including arguments that "we must start somewhere" or "send a signal" by acting locally, that international agreement about restricting specific organisations is achievable, that communities have always traded some liberties during periods of crisis, and that religious belief is not a licence to preach violence.

subsection heading icon     responses

Government responses to terrorist content online have taken five forms -

  • site/forum identification and organisation identification
  • action against hosting
  • action against authoring
  • mandating or encouraging filtering
  • surveillance of audiences


A basic response to 'extreme' content and threats is essentially the identification of relevant sites, fora and organisations. As we note below, governments have traditionally sought to leverage their finite resources by using lists of proscribed or 'suspicious' organisations and texts. Those lists are of some value in for example for confiscation of documents or assets and in surveillance of members or consumers


On the basis of identification governments have prohibited hosting of particular categories of content or by/for particular organisations. The model has been provided by traditional action against print publishers, with for example bans on the printing and distribution of particular texts or publication that is not licensed by a government agency/delegate. Online that has encompassed orders requiring internet content hosts to takedown web sites/pages and fines/imprisonment for entities that host content in breach of official rules.


Action against hosting has been complemented by restrictions aimed at authors or those otherwise responsible for content being made available.

The shape of those restrictions vary. Some regimes, such as China, Syria and Iran, use criminal rather than civil sanctions. It is thus of interest to see indications in the UK that "condoning or glorifying terrorism" (including terrorism outside Britain) will become a criminal offence.


Particular governments have dealt with seditious, subversive or otherwise undesirable organisations by attempting to block access by their citizens to sites under the auspices of those organisations. One example is the 'Great Firewall of China', which among other things attempts to stop residents of the PRC from viewing sites by or favourable to Falun Gong.

Other governments have tacitly or formally endorsed action by ISPs and filter vendors to block access at the private network (eg an ISP or school) or individual machine level.

audience surveillance

Governments have similarly sought to identify people who are reading, rather than publishing, content that is deemed subversive.

subsection heading icon     'I have a little list'

Modern states are based on categorisation and enumeration. Australia and other nations thus continue to maintain lists of proscribed organisations, which face restrictions of varying severity.

During the 1950s the Menzies government for example unsuccessfully sought to make membership of the Communist Party an offence.

The current Australian regime provides that when a body is classified as a 'terrorist organisation' under the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002 it is an offence to -

  • direct the activities of the organisation;
  • recruit persons to the organisation;
  • receive training from or provide training to the organisation;
  • receive funds from or make available funds to the organisation;
  • provide support or resources to the organisation;
  • be a member of the organisation.

There is a more detailed discussion of blacklists and loyalty legislation later in this note.

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version of July 2005
© Bruce Arnold