Issue 121: 2017 09 21: Terror and the internet (Neil Tidmarsh)

21 September 2017

Terror And The Internet

A political challenge, not a technological one.

By Neil Tidmarsh

This week Theresa May is hosting an event at the UN general assembly in New York which will be attended by representatives of internet companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Twitter.  The purpose of the event is to persuade such companies to do more to stop terrorists posting material online.  Mrs May made the same call at the G7 summit in Italy four months ago.  She will be joined in New York by President Macron of France and prime minister Gentiloni of Italy; they are expected to call on other world leaders to help them in the fight against online extremism; the internet is, after all, a global phenomenon.

It’s reasonable to expect every world leader to do whatever they can to make internet companies stop any extremist from using the web to spread terror and murder their citizens.  Of course terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to broadcast propaganda, publish bomb-making instructions or plan attacks via the internet.  But there is a problem here.

It’s not a technological problem.  Facebook was criticised this week because the algorithms in its automated processes had created categories which enabled advertisers to target people who had expressed anti-Semitic opinions (Facebook promptly removed those categories) – so, obviously, extremists and extremist material can be identified.  Google, YouTube and Facebook have all announced that they are developing systems which will identify terrorist material automatically, and either remove it or stop it from appearing in the first place.  Twitter suspended almost 300,000 accounts in the first six months of this year; three-quarters of them were suspended before they even started tweeting.  The technology is there to do the job, or soon will be.

No, the problem is in the participation of political leaders in policing the internet.  Because kings, presidents and prime ministers around the world might, at best, have very different ideas about who is a terrorist and what constitutes extremism, and at worst will see this anti-terror drive in cyberspace (as elsewhere) as a cynical opportunity to silence opposition.

A perfect example occurred only this week. Facebook was criticised (again) for apparently censoring Rohingya activists, and accused of collaborating with supporters of the Burmese authorities to gag criticism of the regime.  Anwar Mohammad, a Rohingya blogger in Malaysia, claims that he was prevented from posting content right from the start of the Burmese crisis three weeks ago, and his account was then suspended, because it did not “follow the Facebook community standards”.  He says that two of his friends in Burma, trying to expose the military authorities’ crimes, were also blocked.  According to The Times, “activists said that Burmese government officials had boasted that the social network was working with the authorities to combat ‘terrorism’ “.

It’s entirely possible that some activists do violate Facebook’s community standards (violations defined by Facebook include “hate speech, fake accounts and dangerous organisations”); but it’s less likely that these activists are actually terrorists themselves.  Of course it would be highly convenient for the authorities and regimes which they oppose if they could be defined as such.

It’s even a moot point whether the Rohingya militants, quite apart from the Rohingya activists, are themselves terrorists.  After all, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and the defender of his community, and the attack on the police check-point on 25 August can’t have spread as much terror among the innocent or have been as violent as the burning of villages, the expulsion of 400,000 refugees, the 4000 violent deaths and all the other outrages which followed (quite apart from the discrimination and abuse to which the Rohingya have been subjected over the years).  And when al-Qaeda this week called for a jihad in Burma and urged Islamist fighters to take up arms on behalf of the Rohingya, the leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army said that his movement is not jihadist or Islamist and would oppose jihad.  That doesn’t sound like a terrorist talking.  But no doubt the authorities in Burma would insist that his is indeed a terrorist organisation, and Mrs May’s otherwise sensible campaign would be playing straight into their blood-stained hands.

When all those nations (19 of them) met in Geneva over a year ago at the beginning of the Syrian peace process, they spent a lot of time debating the crucial question about which of the participants in the conflict were terrorists.  They reached some sensible conclusions, in spite of Assad’s (and Russia’s) claim that all his enemies were terrorists.  Isis, al-Qaeda and the al-Qaeda backed Nusra Front were all judged to be beyond the pale.  But one of the major participants remains the Lebanese-based Shia group, Hezbollah, which many countries consider to be a terrorist outfit.  And there are other examples of this lack of a global consensus about who is or is not a terrorist.  Turkey considers any militant Kurdish group to be terrorists; the USA, the EU and NATO agree that the PKK are terrorists (though the UN, China, India, Egypt and other countries do not) but support related Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq.

This isn’t to defend any kind of relativism (a terrorist is a terrorist after all; his defining characteristics are universal and easily identified), but simply to point out that some governments are less objective and more ruthlessly opportunistic than others.  Nor is it to suggest that Mrs May’s initiative is anything other than a sincere attempt to protect innocent citizens from violent attack.  It isn’t to be placed with some other world leaders’ attempts to curb the power of the web (President Xi’s call for state censorship of the internet in the name of ‘internet sovereignty’ at the World Internet Conference at Wuzhen in December 2015 wasn’t reassuring; neither is the fate of blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia).  But even here in the UK, authority has been tempted to use anti-terrorism measures for dubious ends (such as ejecting hecklers from the Labour Party conference, or protecting public assets from collapsing Icelandic banks).

The challenge with which Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Paolo Gentiloni and other politicians are confronting Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft is a political problem, not a technological one. And the internet can’t be blamed for that.


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