Google Ideas Boss's Really Bad Idea: Kick ISIS Off The Open Web

from the good-luck-with-that dept

Over the last few weeks, there’s been increasing focus on what “else” Silicon Valley can do in the fight against ISIS. Backdooring encryption is a dumb idea that won’t work and will make everyone less safe. So, a second idea keeps getting floated: what if we just stopped letting ISIS use the internet. Hell, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supported the idea recently. And then you have some wacky law professors suggesting the same thing.

For the most part, cooler heads in the tech industry have pointed out that (1) this is impossible and (2) any attempt to do so would be counterproductive in just encouraging more activity and (3) it would actually undermine intelligence gathering, as public posts to social media are a key source of useful intelligence these days.

But, now, at least one prominent person within the tech industry has jumped on board: the somewhat controversial head of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, who used to work for the State Department and now runs Google Ideas (which, for whatever it’s worth, isn’t “Google”). Cohen gave a talk in the UK in which he argued that ISIS was too good at propaganda on the internet, so the answer is to wipe them off the open internet and leave them shuffling around the dark web instead.

Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, believes that to “recapture digital territory” from the terror cell, its members must fear being caught when they post messages promoting the organisation’s cause in public.

“Terrorist groups like Isis, they operate in the dark web whether we want them to or not,” Cohen said at a talk on Waging a Digital Counterinsurgency, at Chatham House. “What is new is that they’re operating without being pushed back in the same internet we all enjoyed. So success looks like Isis being contained to the dark web”.

This is, as noted above, both silly and wrong. First of all, it’s impossible. It’s a ridiculous task that will waste a ton of time, won’t accomplish anything really useful, and will likely result in too many false positives, including (most likely) those who are monitoring and combating ISIS. Second, as mentioned, it will actually do a tremendous amount to limit the intelligence community’s ability to monitor and track ISIS. It’s funny that on the one hand we have officials demanding an end to encrypted communications, fearing “going dark,” while many of those same individuals then turn around and talk about taking ISIS off the public internet, where they reveal a ton of useful information about their activities. Third, it raises serious questions about how committed companies like Google really are to the open internet. Yes, Cohen is director of “Google Ideas” which is separate from Google itself, but basically all of the press coverage about this says that Google is saying people should be kicked off the open web. That’s messaging that will come back to haunt Google as it pushes for the open web in other contexts. Cohen has just opened up Google to a major attack on key points it’s pushing for everywhere else.

On top of that, Cohen seems to think that losing their Twitter accounts will be seen as some kind of punishment:

To do this Cohen said that Isis members openly promoting their cause online must fear retribution and being caught for their actions. Their social media accounts must be removed as fast as they are produced to prevent people making contact with Isis recruiters on the open web.

But that appears to be somewhat ignorant of how things are currently working. Many of their social media accounts are being removed rapidly and to ISIS supporters it becomes a badge of honor, as they quickly open a new account. It’s not retribution, it becomes validation.

It’s too bad that Cohen would suggest such a short-sighted concept when there’s so much evidence these days of how completely counterproductive it would be. This isn’t the kind of creative or new thinking that was promised from Google Ideas, it’s traditional silly Washington DC thinking, without any recognition of the reality of the technology world. If this is a concept from Google Ideas, let’s just say it’s a really, really bad idea. Maybe Google needs a department of better ideas.

Update: And I missed the biggest laugh of all. I hadn’t even realized that the supposed “mission” of Google Ideas is: “Google Ideas builds products to support free expression and access to information for people who need it most.” Hard to see how blocking people from using the internet fits within that purview.

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Companies: google, google ideas

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Comments on “Google Ideas Boss's Really Bad Idea: Kick ISIS Off The Open Web”

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Anonymous Coward says:

First, They Came For the Cohens

Jared Godwin, the director of Giggle Ideas, believes that to “recapture digital territory” from the Jews, its believers must fear being caught when they post messages promoting the religion’s cause in public.

“People like Jews, they operate in the dark web whether we want them to or not,” Godwin said at a talk on Waging a Digital Solution. “What is new is that they’re operating without being pushed back in the same internet we all enjoyed. So success looks like Jews being contained to the dark web”.

To do this Godwin said that Jews openly promoting their cause online must fear retribution and being caught for their actions. Their social media accounts must be removed as fast as they are produced to prevent people making contact with Jewish recruiters on the open web.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t know whether to laugh at this idea or cry. It gives an idea of the mentality behind the combating of religious frantics. I’d gather that from this suggestion that Google is looking for some sort of payday from the government if they could sell this idea. There’s nothing like the job that doesn’t end for job security and income.

It’s almost like they are afraid to mention that people get very inventive when it comes to getting around censorship. You can look at China for a fine example of that. Those manning the the Great Firewall and looking for subversion have found out that suddenly their word filters aren’t working so well. When the populace wants to talk about something forbidden, they just come up with code words that every one understands but no one actually says what they understand the word or phrase to represent. As soon as that one is discovered a new phrase comes into being. People are very inventive in this matter.

Nor does Google address that once you block some service another will popup to replace it more likely than not run by supporters. Google taking the mention of the site off line works no better than site filters for the copyright gang. Just removing a site from search does not remove it from the internet. Know the IP and you can still go right to it. So all those wanting words out of the ISIS group will just give the IP address rather than the domain.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…How do you stop anyone’s speech without violating the constitution?…

Who’s constitution?

Last time I checked ISIS and the like were not on US soil, so the US constitution wouldn’t apply.

What soil(s) ISIS occupies have constitutions that allows prosecution for blasphemy (or at least does not have freedom of expression(s) like the US). Some also allow for execution if convicted – no ‘Eighth Amendment’ protection there.

So if the internet is supposed to be free and open, then it will have to accommodate expression that not everybody will like.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Policy is done by abstracting concepts. As is tech for that matter. How does one “define” Islamic terrorism in a programmatic sense? How does one algorithmically identify when someone is going to be “radicalized”?

Traditional attempts to try to do this have resulted in terrorizing innocent people who use trigger words or use hyperbole.

Here’s an example of obvious hyperbole that resulted in a teenager being charged with making “terroristic threats”, jailed, abused by inmates, and put in solitary:
‘All of it started in February 2013, when the then 18-year-old got into a verbal exchange with another League of Legends player, who suggested he was dangerous or crazy. He responded, “I’m f- – – – – in the head alright, I think I’ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN […] AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN […] AND EAT THE BEATING HEART OF ONE OF THEM.”‘

Bad policy and kneejerk reactions harm innocents and substantially chill speech. Justin Carter’s case is hardly unique. Just take any of the numerous scare stories over the years about how someone saying the word “bomb,” even in non-malicious/terroristic contexts, got targeted for anti-terrorism efforts.

We’ve seen harm after harm happen to non-malicious expressions of free speech over the years since 9/11 without equivalent good to show for it.

Chris-Mouse (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Google is a US based company, and I strongly suspect that this is a result of political pressure being brought to bear on Google by US politicians.

You are right though, a more general question is how to maintain a free and open internet in spite of many different organizations who want to restrict or eliminate things they find uncomfortable or embarassing.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

How do you tell a good guy from a bad guy?

Yes, that’s a big question.

How do you stop anyone’s speech without violating the constitution?

In this case, I don’t think that’s an issue at all. First off, Google is not the government. The First Amendment only concerns government action on interfering with freedom of expression. Google, by itself, as a private company, is free to do whatever it wants. Second, for most folks outside of the US (meaning nearly all of ISIS), the First Amendment doesn’t exactly apply to them either.

It’s a dumb idea all around, but the First Amendment has nothing to do with it.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What does “separate” even mean here? How is Google Ideas separate from the rest of Google?

It’s a separate group working on its own projects (which, hilariously, are SUPPOSED to be about increasing freedom of expression around the globe), unrelated to Google itself. It’s not like Cohen saying this means that Google is going to suddenly start blocking ISIS accounts. The two are unrelated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t understand.

What’s the difference between Google headquarters vs Google Ideas and Google headquarters vs Google Calico? Or any other Alphabet subsidiary other than Google Calico?

Google lets them use its brand name, which to the public conveys association with Google headquarters.

It was crated by Eric Schmidt who appointed Jared Cohen to lead it.

All that’s left that’s unknown to me is its funding and corporate structure. Presumably, if they are separate, Eric Schmidt could not order Jared Cohen to do a certain action, or replace Jared Cohen as the head of Google Ideas, or have any sort of formal influence like that.

ECA (profile) says:


Has anyone…
During a Commercial and complaint session..
About ISIS/ISIL.. using the internet to Corrupt our children and nations…
Ever mentioned a SITE doing it?
A CHAT doing it?
A social media site doing it?
Any internet location doing it?

What would happen if a Site was mentioned that was RE-Programming your kids..
What would you do??

I figure that 100,000,000 hits and ALLOT of consternation would be on that site, IN THAT CHAT/Forum/SITE… in Less then 2 minutes..

For all the posturing and Falderal(BS).. being past around, this seems to be a FAULT in all that is being said by our government..Give us a SITE name or location and I will BET, the site goes DOWN…
This will be better then the Christian Church vs Leonardo..

Glenn D. Jones (profile) says:

Jared Cohen is not a technologist

I’ve never worked at Google, so take this with a grain of salt. But my guess would be that he’s there in more of a “government relations” role.

In other words, acting as an early warning system for government reactions to new technology. And he probably uses his connections with the State department to act as an interlocutor when things get really bad (i.e. encryption).

Personally, I don’t see his views being representative of Google, because he clearly doesn’t have any background experience with technology — unlike the vast majority of the people there.

From his Wikipedia entry:

“Cohen received a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University…majoring in history and political science and minoring in African studies.”


“He subsequently earned a master’s degree in International Relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar.”

That One Other Not So Random Guy says:

“Their social media accounts must be removed as fast as they are produced to prevent people making contact with Isis recruiters on the open web.”

When wondering how the YouTube spamming system worked I ran across some spammers… marketeers they call themselves. They had offers to buy 200+ YouTube accounts at a pop. I doubt they were just limited to YouTube.

Companies and Government just love to play Whack-A-Mole.

CanadianByChoice (profile) says:

The real idiocy here is that as soon as you censor the ideas of a particular group, people – who already distrust “all things government” – begin to wonder what it is that “they” [government] doesn’t want the people to know, so they go looking for answers. Instead of decreasing exposure, they risk increasing it – from curiosity.
The only workable response to “terrorist propaganda” is well reasoned (as in, “average people” will understand it) counter propaganda. Do objective, critical analysis of their propaganda and – dispassionately! – point out the errors and consequences of their instructions and suggestions, basing those on obvious FACTS, not on “touchy-feely” appeals that look more like emotional attacks than anything else.
That said, quite frankly, the US (and the other “Five Eyes”) have very little in the way of moral high-ground from which to criticize what extremist groups do. What, exactly, do the extremists do that our governments don’t? Execute people? look into “extra-judicial killings”. Torture? remember the CIA torture report? Kidnapping? investigate the governments detention policies. Expropriation? how about “asset forfeiture” (as now practised by LEO in the US)?
Maybe the best answer is to prove – by example – that the way of life in the “free countries” really is better by setting an example of BEING better. Stop doing all this stupid-ass crap and go back to what the Fore-Fathers envisioned our countries to be.
Extremist groups use violence as an answer to their perceived grievances; I can understand that because it’s the same behaviour you see in children, too immature to make reasoned choices. The western countries are supposed to be more mature – so why aren’t they behaving more maturely? When you lower yourself to the level of a bully you simply become another bully yourself.
Stop making people feel “disenfranchised” and you’ll have less radicalization.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google is scared of the dark web

Look at the big picture: Quite simply, Google is scared of the dark web. It can’t index these sites, it can’t track people using them and it can’t serve ads to it.

What’s the ‘solution’? Force terrorists onto the dark web. Then declare the dark web to be evil and make it illegal to access or use it. Force people back onto the non-dark web, so they can be served ads and have their privacy invaded.

Really, this statement is nothing more than demonising the dark web again.

The dark web is by no means safe and there’s no denying there’s a lot of bad content. But good and honest people use it because they want privacy from Google, the government, et al. One day, those wanting privacy may represent a majority, and Google is afraid of that.

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