Why Censoring The Internet Would Make It Harder To Fight Terrorism

Why Censoring The Internet Would Make It Harder To Fight Terrorism

The western world needs to combat the ideology of radical Islamism. But this is only possible if we can promote and protect free speech.
Patrick Hannaford
By

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has called for greater regulation of the Internet to combat the growing threat of Islamist extremism. Addressing the public after the latest attack on London—the third act of Islamist terrorism in the U.K. this year—May rightly placed blame for the string of recent attacks on “the evil ideology of Islamist extremism.”

“Defeating this ideology is one of the great challenges of our time,” she said. “But it cannot be defeated by military intervention alone. It will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence and make them understand that our values—pluralistic British values—are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”

To combat this evil ideology, May has proposed greater regulation of the internet, imposed through international agreements, in order to “prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.”

“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” May said. “Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide Internet-based services provide.”

Internet Censorship Will Help, Not Hurt, Terrorism

May is yet to outline the details of her proposal. But if initial reports are anything to go by, it is likely to include laws forcing companies to weaken their encryption standards—making all online data less secure—as well as a push for new international agreements that require internet companies to deny a platform to extremist propaganda. In other words, it will be nothing short of a China-style regime of internet censorship—a comparison May has declined to refute.

This proposal has already gained the support of Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, after Australia suffered its own small attack on Monday, when a lone gunman claimed as a “soldier of ISIS” killed one man and took a women hostage. The idea is also likely to gain support from President Trump, who called for “closing that Internet up in some way,” during his campaign.

It is good to see a western political leader facing up to the challenge posed by Islamist ideology. But increased internet censorship is not the solution to this problem. It will only make the problem harder to combat by infringing on legitimate speech, pushing the problem further underground, and leaving the real-life “safe spaces” untouched.

The Internet Isn’t The Real Problem

The internet “safe space” argument is compelling. It’s undeniable that groups like ISIS devote considerable resources to online propaganda, and have motivated people in the west to both join them and to carry out attacks in their homelands. People are right to worry about lone wolves being radicalized on the internet.

But this doesn’t describe the perpetrators of the last three attacks in the U.K., most of whom were already known to the police. Nor does it describe the Australian terrorist, who not only had a history of violence and connections to terrorism, but was out on bail at the time of the attack.

More importantly, it ignores the far greater problem of the safe spaces Islamist extremism benefits from in the real world. For too long terrorist attacks have been met with little more than stoic sympathy and willful blindness, as leaders deny that repeated attacks are anything more than the actions of a few maniacs, with no discernible connection to the religion of Islam.

On the one hand, it’s understandable for political leaders not to want to ascribe blame to the wider Muslim community, the vast majority of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the barbarism carried out in the name of their religion.

On the other hand, this approach has only exacerbated the problem by insulating the Muslim community—and therefore Islamism—from the sort of criticism that all other groups in western societies are subjected to. In many European countries, this bigotry of low expectations has led to the development of entire suburbs that are de-facto no-go zones—areas of a city that are completely disconnected from wider society, where it’s dangerous for any non-Muslims to enter.

What We Can Learn From Molenbeek

A prime example is the area of Molenbeek, in Belgium, where an alleged participant in the November 13 Paris attacks (which left 130 people dead and 368 wounded) was able to hide out for nearly four months, despite being the most wanted man in Europe. There’s nowhere as bad as Molenbeek in the U.K., but the British Muslim community has nevertheless been afforded the kind of protection from criticism that no other community enjoys.

The harm caused by this insidious political correctness was highlighted in 2014, when an independent inquiry found that police, community leaders, and local politicians had systematically failed to prevent the sexual exploitation of 1,400 children between 1997 and 2013—a figure described as a “conservative estimate”—in the north-England town of Rotherham (population 257,000).

The reason blamed for this failure was the fear of being accused of racism, since these so-called “grooming gangs” were mostly made up of Muslims of Pakistani origin. Even when the crimes were eventually reported, the perpetrators were described as mostly “Asian men,” rather than as Muslims.

Illiberal Ideas Persist In Britain’s Muslim Community

It obviously goes without saying that these appalling crimes are not the fault of all British Muslims, most of whom would be horrified by such behavior. Nevertheless, it highlights the failure of British society to hold the Muslim community to the same standards as everyone else.

It’s undeniable that appallingly illiberal views have been allowed to persist in the British Muslim community. In a 2015 poll of 1,000 British Muslim, 27 percent said they have some sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. An additional 2016 poll found that two out of three British Muslims would not report someone they knew to the police, if they became involved with terrorist sympathizers. These sentiments aren’t new. A 2006 poll found that 20 percent of British Muslism had sympathy for the motivations of the London bombings of July 7, 2005 (which left 52 people dead and 784 injured).

It’s unlikely that these attitudes, which are alarmingly out of step with the rest of British society, would still exist if not for their  “safe spaces,” created by the taboo on criticism of Islam. The first step to combating Islamist extremism is to remove this taboo.

Internet Censorship Will Make Things Worse

Not only will increasing internet censorship do nothing to remove the safe-spaces that exist in the real world, it may even make the problem worse.

There is simply no way to completely censor anything in the internet age. All states can do is push ideas and discussions further underground, where the ideas are harder to combat and where it is harder for intelligence services to keep track of them—a point stressed by the U.K.’s leading digital advocacy organization, the Open Rights Group.

There is also a long track record of anti-free speech laws—designed to protect the public from harmful speech—being used suppress discussion of important issues, simply because they are controversial and may offend some people. In 2016, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was found guilty of violating Hate Speech laws for comments he made in 2014 that were “demeaning and thereby insulting towards the Moroccan population.” Wilders had asked a roomful of his supporter if they wanted to have “more or fewer Moroccans” in the country. When the crowd shouted back “Fewer!” he replied, “Well, we’ll take care of that.”

In the recent March 15 election, Wilders’ party got over 1.3 million votes (13.6 percent), so he clearly represents a significant proportion of the Dutch population. He would not have this support if the issues he talks about didn’t resonate with the public. Ironically, these are the same issues that May’s proposal is attempting to address—namely, the spread of radical Islamism.

This Could Be An Excuse to Suppress More Than Terrorism

People might disagree with the solutions Wilders proposes, but this is not the way to combat unwanted ideas. No one is served when we collectively decide to stick our heads in the sand. The problem will not magically disappear.

There is every reason to expect that May’s internet censorship proposal will also be used to suppress more than just Islamist propaganda. Perhaps the best evidence of this is a private conversation between German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, which was picked up by a hot mic in 2015. Merkel was overheard asking Zuckerberg what he was doing about anti-immigrant posts on Facebook. Zuckerberg’s response was, “We need to do some work.” Make no mistake, this was nothing short of an attempt to reduce opposition to Merkel’s unprecedented decision to open Germany’s borders to a seemingly unlimited number of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

May’s internet censorship proposal will create the infrastructure for politicians like Merkel to not just ask internet companies to act, but demand it.

Free Speech Is The Best Way To Combat Extremism

Several European countries introduced Hate Speech laws in order to prevent the sort of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. However, not only have these laws failed to eradicate anti-Semitism, it is now widely reported to be on the rise throughout Europe. The situation has gotten so bad, some people are now discussing whether it’s time for the Jews to leave Europe, for good.

The situation could not be more different in the United States, which has become arguably the safest country for Jews on earth. The U.S. is also significantly better than Europe at integrating its immigrant population, including its Muslim population. This is because of the First Amendment, which helps ensure the existence of a vibrant and robust marketplace of ideas in which extremist propaganda can be combatted. This is an important lesson for western societies to learn: Free speech is the best way to combat unwanted ideas.

The western world needs to combat the ideology of radical Islamism. But this is only possible if we can openly discuss issues, free from the kind of politically correct taboos that have insulated the Muslim community. May’s internet censorship proposal will only make this more difficult.

Patrick Hannaford is an Australian writer based in Washington DC.

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