And so it begins again; the customary fingerpointing at the Internet as a platform for fueling extremist hatred in the wake of the latest terrorist outrages in Europe — accompanied, in certain corners of the political arena, by calls for greater powers of digital surveillance to preemptively thwart acts of terror.
In a joint statement put out yesterday, the justice and interior ministers of 12 European countries — including the U.K., France and Germany — express concern at “the increasingly frequent use of the Internet to fuel hatred and violence and signal our determination to ensure that the Internet is not abused to this end”.
They also call for major ISPs to partner with governments to enable “swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible”.
The statement echoes moves by the U.K. government late last year to co-opt major ISPs (and their users) into doing more to help combat extremist material posted online — with a plan to introduce stricter filters and improved reporting mechanisms, including having ISPs host a public reporting button for extremist content.
The U.K. government was also, late last year, laying out a plan to use IP-matching as a counter-terrorism measure — to better identify individual web users who might be posting or consuming problem content.
The joint European ministers’ statement steers away from detailing any such specific technological measures, but talks up the need for generally strengthening operational cooperation and intelligence sharing across Europe — such as in areas of pan-European travel and illegal firearms control — as well as ramping up intelligence sharing with the U.S. and Canada in order to, as they put it, “defend the values of peace and tolerance around the globe”.
The statement also commits to European governments waging a collective counter-extremist propaganda war online — by developing “positive, targeted and easily accessible messages; able to counter [terrorist] propaganda, aimed at a young audience that is particularly vulnerable to indoctrination”.
“Our action must continue to be part of a comprehensive approach, based on the fight against radicalization, notably on the Internet, and on the strengthening of resources to thwart the action of the different forms of terrorist networks and notably to hamper their movement,” the statement adds.
The Internet being in the firing line, post-terrorist outrage, is par for the course. Politicians’ go-to response to terrorism is to talk tough on something — and with no easy physical target to attack, digital channels become the obvious stand in.
No one who has to regularly stand for election wants to sound soft-touch with the smell of gunfire lingering in the air. And given the dispersed, decentralized nature of modern terrorism the majority of its battles are fought online — as part of an ongoing propaganda war between conflicting ideologies.
That in turns means the Internet becomes embroiled in and implicated in the struggle, as the virtual battlefield where propaganda skirmishes play out. And where, we are continually told, terrorists are recruited and trained. (Western politicians obviously don’t want to finger their own foreign policies as contributory factors to any growth in extremism.)
And so we see our politicians once again worrying in public about the Internet and even hankering for greater powers to intercept everyone’s digital communications — taking a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ approach in order to appear appropriately tough in the wake of last week’s horrifying slaughter in Paris.
This weekend, U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron, told ITV News: “We do need to modernise our rules about interception” in order to tackle what he dubbed the “poisonous death cult” of extremist Islam. He went on to commit to (re)introduce legislation to enable a “more comprehensive” interception of web users’ communications should he be re-elected in the U.K. General Election, this May.
A so-called ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ requiring blanket retention of digital comms has failed to make it onto the U.K.’s statute books multiple times in recent years, including last year when the coalition government’s junior partner baulked at supporting the more expansive interception powers contained within the Communications Data Bill — on the grounds of it being a disproportionate invasion of civil liberties and privacy.
However the Conservative Party, which leads the current coalition, has been ramping up its digital counter-terrorism rhetoric for some time now. In November, for instance, it was pointing the finger of blame at Facebook for not doing more to prevent the 2013 killing of a soldier in London by two extremists, arguing that the social network should have identified and informed on specific terrorist chatter taking place via its website. Instead of directing blame at the security services for multiple intelligence failures associated with the extremist perpetrators of that act of terrorism.
Bottom line: It’s a lot easier for governments to spread blame outwards, extending responsibility for countering terrorism beyond their own boundaries — onto an amorphous and ‘dangerous’ Internet. That also creates a parallel impetus for them to increase surveillance of a now perilously implicated Internet.
And so we get to the latest calls for increased surveillance, post-Paris terrorist atrocity. Scapegoating and surveillance are the watchwords of modern counterterrorism policy, and the Internet is its apparent application layer.
The particular irony here (and not the only one) is that last week’s terrorist atrocities in Paris were, at least in part, a direct attack on freedom of expression — given that one target was a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad. (For the record, other targets of Charlie‘s pen over the years included non-Islam-related entities such as the Catholic Church, and the leader of France’s Far Right party, Marine Le Pen.)
That means that political kneejerkery urging Internet clampdowns here, perhaps has to be a little more sensitively crafted than usual — given the potential for self-generated satire. Hence a secondary clause inserted into the European ministers’ joint statement which labours a point about “safeguarding that [the Internet] remains, in scrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms, a forum for free expression, in full respect of the law”.
But even here this united front of politicians is making sure to point out that the “fundamental freedoms” of “free expression” on the Internet are already bounded by “the law”. In other words freedom of expression is always relative to the values of the society doing the policing. The problem with the Internet, of course, is it has global reach, and no single law applies. So there is even more relativity than usual.
The Internet can be characterized as a platform that enables the very extremes of freedom of expression, given its growing global reach and lowered barriers to publishing and to building an audience — not to mention the challenges of policing cyberspace — enabling all sorts of content to proliferate, permeate and resonate. Content that, in earlier times, would never have achieved such amplification or support, given that it would have been filtered or edited out of more tightly controlled publishing media before it was able to do so.
It’s therefore a platform that is increasingly creating uncomfortable ideological juxtapositions as the adoption of digital tools ramps up across the globe, and different groups and communities learn how to broadcast their messages to a global audience. Polarized viewpoints are coming into contact like never before. And we are seeing an emergent culture of conflict on mainstream online channels.
How politicians respond to this increasing visibility of conflict online — and to the terrorist outrages that they (mis)characterize as outgrowths of digital activity — will shape the future of the Internet. This is a complex, geo-political challenge being played out on a digital platform still dominated in large part by U.S. companies and U.S.-led governance entities.
Combating extremist propaganda online with targeted positive messages certainly sounds like a more proportionate counter terrorism strategy than putting all citizens’ digital communications under surveillance. But, as Edward Snowden has shown us, online surveillance dragnets have been the story of a post-9/11 world.
So here at the start of 2015 let’s hope politicians think carefully before they pull the policy trigger.