The word terrorism elicits a visceral response, which is unsurprising as it contains the word “terror” in it. Terrorism in the West has gained particular public focus following the Paris, Berlin, Manchester and London attacks. It is regarded by many as the biggest threat facing our democracies and many Governments have begun to push for new powers to fight it. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called for new laws to regulate the Internet in order to combat terrorism and Islamic extremism, although she is far from alone.
We are diving into a deep, complex topic here so in order to keep things manageable, lets focus upon the situation unfolding in the United Kingdom in the wake of the recent London and Manchester terror attacks. That said, the problems discussed and issues raised could easily be applied to the United States, France, Germany or pretty much any other country that is reeling from the recent spate of terror attacks and it trying to find a way to combat terrorism.
Why is the Internet being targeted
The Internet is essentially free speech made manifest. You can find a website or community for any topic your heart desires; from crocheting all the way up to extremist Islam. The internet gives us access to information on any topic we chose and this is where the dilemma for governments lies.
Studies have shown that the vast majority of terrorists in the United Kingdom are “Home Grown” (British born). Some are radicalized by extremist Imans but a report by the Henry Jackson society estimated that around 50% of radicalized Muslims are recruited or indoctrinated online. Young, disillusioned Muslims who frequent extremist websites might be contacted by a “recruiter” who will attempt to convince them to either travel to the Middle East for training, or to commit terror attacks in their home country. These young Muslims often become drawn into a bubble where all they see and experience online is an extreme Islamic view of the world, which makes them easy targets for Daesh recuiters.
Given that the Internet gives Daesh and others the reach to contact young Muslims in the West it makes sense that the State would look to target the Internet. If people cannot access extremist material, then they are less likely to become extremists. In fact Theresa May has long argued for this position, believing that regulating the Internet and weakening encryption is key if the state is to protect its citizens.
Is it even possible for the Government to regulate the Internet?
For the moment let’s put aside the minefield of morality and ethics issues associated with May’s proposals, we’ll get back to those. Instead let’s focus upon exactly how May wants to regulate the Internet and whether it is feasible. While May has not outlined exactly how her proposed regulations will work we can get a glimpse by looking at the Conservative Manifesto for the British elections on the 8th of June.
May’s manifesto states that “online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline. “ citing examples such as bullying, grooming children and limiting access to violent pornography. They state that they “do not believe there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.”. Put like this, on paper, it all sounds very reasonable. At least until you realize what they are suggesting actually means.
To start with, The Conservatives want to demand that ISPs and companies like Google and Facebook take the role of the censor. The problem is that these entities do not want to become a censor. In fact Facebook and Google have based their entire business model on the idea that they are not publishers. Any attempt to force the Tech giants to step into the role of moderator will meet with some heavy push back. A fact the Conservatives discovered to their cost when they attempted to weaken Whatsapp’s encryption protocols in the wake of the London Terror Attacks.
On top of strident resistance from tech company’s recent events, such as the WannaCry ransomware attacks have shown that attempting to weaken encryption in order to facilitate government surveillance in the name of fighting terrorism could have disastrous side effects. The NSA managed to inadvertently give cybercriminals the tools they needed to conduct the largest ransomware attack in history.
Even putting aside the likely strident opposition from tech companies; the simple practicalities of mass surveillance and regulation are staggering. The British government has already made attempts to force ISPs to store users data as part of the Snoopers Charter, enacted during May’s tenure as home secretary. ISPs will be forced to invest in huge amounts of storage in order to collect data for the British Government to investigate at will, pushing up costs for consumers.
Practically Government regulation of the Internet is difficult, Ethically it is a minefield
Practically, attempting to regulate the Internet would be troublesome to implement, to say the least. That said, the practicalities are not the most compelling argument against surveillance. The strongest argument against Governments attempting to regulate the Internet lies in that ethical minefield we put aside earlier.
Even once one puts aside the cultural control aspect of May’s manifesto her proposals still have chilling ethical consequences. The intention to force content creators and ISPs to enforce an Anti Extremist narrative is particularly disturbing, essentially extending the controversial Prevent program into the online sphere.
On top of their desire to control the narrative, May’s Conservatives are also pushing hard to extend the powers of the British Intelligence Services. Theresa May has long been a proponent of mass surveillance methods during her tenure in the home office and she has used the latest attacks to push for the intelligence service’s right to use them to be enshrined in law. The problem is that there is little to no evidence that it is any more effective than targeted surveillance and it would involve collecting the personal data and activities of completely innocent individuals.
The idea of trying to regulate the Internet by culling or blocking extremists websites in order to remove any “safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online” may sound innocent or even beneficial. At least until put in the context of May’s other proposals; such as blocking Pornography, enshrining mass data collection in law and controlling what kind of news is posted online. In essence, the Conservatives want to reshape the online world in their own image and they are using terrorism and fear in order to justify it.
Is fear making us lose sight of our democracy?
The crux of this problem is that the solutions are driven by our fear of terrorism. The Conservative government has openly stated that their first order of business is the security of British citizens. The problem is that in order to secure British citizens against the potential threat of terror they risk undermining a democracy they claim to protect.
This applies to every country facing the threat of terror at the moment. Are we willing to undermine or limit our democracy’s because of the fear of terrorists? By curtailing certain citizen’s rights, limiting our ability to use the Internet and in essence changing our way of life we are essentially saying that terrorism works.
They want us to become less democratic. They want us to spend our lives fearful of their reprisals and attacks. They want us to focus on the chaos they can cause rather than the unity we show in the aftermath.
We should not change our way of life because of fear. We should show the courage of our convictions and uphold our democratic freedoms in the face of their atrocities. If we regulate the Internet for fear of terrorism that is tantamount conceding to their demands.
Freedom isn’t free. The cost of freedom is lessened security. I’m willing to pay that price, are you?