As the Islamic State (IS) has conquered more and more territory across Iraq and Syria, the jihadists have added another tool to their arsenal of terror: the Internet. IS propaganda officers have used YouTube, Twitter, and chat platforms to boast of their accomplishments, promote terror by posting videos depicting the beheading of journalists, and recruit young people to their cause. A recent estimate suggests that at least 2,000 Westerners have traveled to Syria to fight alongside IS and other groups — many of them recruited online.
Something must be done to curb IS’s recruitment. But at the same time, anti-terror laws cannot be used, yet again, to restrict free expression. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening.
On Sept. 24, the U.N. Security Council, presided over by President Barack Obama, unanimously passed a resolution aimed at condemning violent extremism. The resolution, while focused on preventing the international flow of terrorist fighters, also appears to have given certain states — such as China — a pretense for their own crackdowns on separatist groups, and potentially others, under the guise of terrorism. A number of the statements by world leaders in response to the resolution included references to the Internet: “Terrorist use of the Internet must be obstructed,” said Wang Yi, China’s minister for foreign affairs. Haider Al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, went a step further, calling to end “[terrorists’] use of the Internet.”
Attempts to restrict IS’s use of the Internet have, thus far, been limited. The Iraqi government has blocked websites and attempted to impose online curfews, but has been challenged by opposition from local free speech activists who see the measure as yet another attempt to limit access and curb free speech for the rest of the population. Popular social networks largely based in the United States, in particular Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, have also sought to remove content posted by IS, but the ease with which a user can simply create a new account or re-post a video or link has made such efforts largely futile.
Apart from IS and its supporters, no one is arguing that the group’s use of the Internet is merely free speech. But the implications of attempting to censor them could easily have unintended consequences for other Internet users, including researchers who study terrorism. Worse yet, the U.N. resolution, which refers twice to curbing terrorist use of the Internet, gives a pass to governments seeking to limit online freedoms and undermines existing Internet governance structures.
The Internet is currently governed through a multi-stakeholder model that pushes for consensus in all matters of governance, from intellectual property to network restrictions. This model is implemented in several ways, most notably through the annual U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum, which brings together civil society, governments, academics, and the private sector to discuss matters of regulation. In recent years, this model has been challenged by governments, including China and Russia, which see the role of government as greater than that of corporations or civil society. The inclusive multi-stakeholder model has also been challenged by closed-door trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would export some of the United States’ worst copyright law without offering any of its protections — such as fair use — and potentially criminalize the use of technologies used to circumvent online censorship.
Much like these trade agreements, Resolution 2178 is an attempt by governments to exclude other key stakeholders from important questions of governance. Specifically, the resolution “expresses concern” over the use of communications technology by “terrorists and their supporters” and expresses “strong determination” to consider including individuals and groups supporting terrorist activities “including through information and communications technologies, such as the internet, social media, or any other means” on a sanctions list.
This may not seem like a problem, until one considers the ways in which certain governments use terrorism as a pretense for persecuting journalists, activists, and other dissenters. Take Morocco (whose prime minister submitted a statement in support of the resolution) for example: The North African kingdom is currently prosecuting Ali Anouzla, a popular journalist and editor, on charges of “glorifying terrorism” just for linking to an article that linked to a YouTube video posted by an al Qaeda affiliate. International and Moroccan human rights organizations have condemned the prosecution as an attempt by the government in Rabat to stifle criticism of the government’s anti-terrorism policies. Resolution 2178 could potentially provide cover for such actions.
Security Council member China shut down the Internet across Xinjiang province for 10 months in 2009 following ethnic violence in the western territory, which is home to the Uighur separatist movement. Other countries — from Ethiopia to Russia to Egypt — have proposed or utilized laws aimed at curbing terrorism or protecting national security in attempts to stifle speech.
The specter of terrorism has also prompted democratic countries to take actions that could have a deleterious effect on free expression. Just last month, the French parliament passed an anti-terrorism law that contains specific provisions for blocking access to certain websites without democratic oversight and provides for harsher penalties for incitement or “glorification” of terrorism undertaken on the Internet. More recently, a private dinner between European Union governments and tech companies aimed at addressing extremist content. Later, it was reported that the companies resisted EU efforts to “proactively prevent content being added to their systems.”
While corporations are free to govern their spaces as they see fit, and often remove content at the behest of legal orders from governments and law enforcement, such private dealings between the public and private sectors subvert the existing approach to governing the online sphere.
Adding systems to proactively ban certain types of content, as EU representatives reportedly demanded, is no small task. Moreover, this could involve creating systems that could later be used to censor other content, such as hate speech or even nudity. Once such systems are in place, it is difficult to hold corporations accountable in the event of their misuse.
Rather than move toward censorship, efforts to curb recruitment should be focused on the recruiters and those they are targeting. Blocking IS from using Facebook might temporarily hamper their efforts, but the Internet is a big place with countless spaces less easily reached by governments. As for the horrifically violent content (such as videos depicting beheadings) that IS insists on spreading to intimidate the world, let them. The world should be able to see the depravity of their ideology. Rather than censoring such content outright, companies should work toward building better filters for users to select what they do or do not wish to view.
The threat posed by online recruitment by terrorist groups is real, but the Internet itself is not the problem. By treating the symptom with sweeping measures and giving a pass to the use of the Security Council is potentially threatening the free and open Internet.