Censoring The Internet Won’t Stop Terrorism

    December 9, 2012

Terrorists are on the Internet. It’s just a fact. Just like you and I, members of radical fringe groups use the Internet to communicate ideas and spread information. It’s hard to combat the message when it’s online due to the nature of the Internet, but some countries have proposed methods that outright censor anything that remotely looks like terrorism. A new report argues that such censorship methods won’t accomplish a thing.

Do you think terrorism is a problem on the Internet? What should governments do to stop it? Let us know in the comments.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C., issued a report on Wednesday called “Countering Online Radicalization in America.” The report issues a number of suggestions to lawmakers on how to curb the rise in terrorism online and off. The report features a number of common sense strategies that actually make a lot of sense.

The BPC outlines it strategy in three sections – Reducing the supply, reducing the demand and exploiting cyberspace. The first, reducing the supply, says that current approaches to reducing radical content on the Internet is “neither feasible or desirable.” The group also says offers some basic recommendations on how to cut down on violent rhetoric:

Government should refrain from establishing nationwide filtering systems.

Government needs to retain its capability for aggressive takedowns of foreign-based websites but only use it when doing so is absolutely essential to stop a terrorist attack and/or prevent the loss of life.

The circumstances and legal framework governing the use of cyber-attacks need to be clarified.

Prosecutions against violent extremist Internet entrepreneurs need to weigh the chances of success against the unintended consequence of drawing attention to their ideas and propaganda.

Government should accelerate the establishment of informal partnerships to assist large Internet companies in understanding national security threats as well as trends and patterns in terrorist propaganda and communication.

Most of this is really good stuff. The last recommendation is the only one that raises some concern as the government has already tried it with CISPA. The bill contained too many privacy implications, however, for it to be a worthwhile cause. The establishment of informal partnerships is a far more desirable outcome.

The second section, reducing the demand, goes with the idea that the Internet is a virtual “marketplace of ideas.” The thinking here is that governments and others can establish positive speech that will drown out any potential terroristic or radical speech that pops up online. The recommendations are as follows:

Government, in partnership with community groups, needs to continue to expand programs and initiatives that create awareness and spread information about online radicalization among educators, parents, and communities.

Government should serve as an enabler, bringing together the private sector, foundations, philanthropists, and community groups to build capacity and to help potentially credible messengers—such as mainstream groups, victims of terrorism, and other stakeholders—to become more effective at conveying their messages. The forthcoming Internet strategy should spell out what the government will do and how success will be measured.

The government’s Internet strategy also needs to make clear what part of government will coordinate capacity building, engagement, and outreach efforts as well as what resources will be made available to support this task.

The government should encourage school authorities to review and update their curricula on media literacy, consider violent extremism as part of their instruction on child-safety issues, and develop relevant training resources for teachers.

Again, some of these suggestions could easily lead into government overreach, but a lot of it is pretty good. The last recommendation is especially relevant when children are being brought up on the Internet, but many of them are not being taught basic media literacy to tell the difference between radical extremism dressed up in colorful kid friendly art and an actual kid friendly site.

The final section, exploiting cyberspace, is by far the most interesting. The report recommends that the US government not actively remove terrorists from the Internet, but rather use the Internet against them. The fact that these groups use the Internet opens up them up to exploitation on a massive scale that could potentially feed mountains of information to intelligence agencies on future plans, movement patterns and other identifying markers.

That being said, the BPC gives the following recommendations on how to best gather data without affecting civilians:

Government needs to review oversight procedures and clarify the legal framework under which domestic agencies are permitted to monitor, save, and analyze online communications.

Government should increase the amount of online training offered to members of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including state and local agencies.

Given the rapidly changing nature of the online environment, government needs to periodically review the scope, sophistication, and appropriateness of the regulatory framework that governs data gathering and analysis in cyberspace, as well as the technological tools and capabilities that are used for doing so.

What do you think of the BPC’s recommendations? Should the US be fighting fire with fire, so to speak, when dealing with terrorists online? Let us know in the comments.

All in all, the BPC’s report is easily the best Internet-related legislative recommendation to come out of Washington this year. It’s comprehensive, easy to understand and goes against the current trend of government agencies asking for more surveillance powers when such simple solutions would work just as well.

Although the report is aimed at US lawmakers, delegates from around the world at this week’s ITU conference would be wise to take heed of these recommendations. Giving control of the Internet to a bunch of bureaucrats and letting them decide what should and should not be on the Internet isn’t going to magically rid the Internet of terrorism. Engaging these voices and exposing them as the hateful groups they are will align the public against them more strongly than a simple ban or erasure ever would.

Members of Congress will likely bring more cybersecurity legislation to the table in 2013. It will be interesting to see if any of the recommendations from this report makes into any of the proposed bills. There are easy and effective ways to counter terrorism online, and you don’t have to censor the Internet or invade citizens’ privacy to do it.

Can online terrorism be thwarted without making drastic changes to the Internet? Or must these drastic changes take place to protect others? Let us know in the comments.