from the voluntary-until-we-make-it-compulsory dept
A couple of weeks ago, Techdirt reported on UK politicians calling for ISPs to "take down" terrorist content. Now it seems that the idea has not only spread to other European countries, but even acquired a cheesy name: "the Clean IT Project".
The internet plays a central role and is of great strategic importance for terrorists and extremist networks. These networks know that propaganda is a critical tool for generating funding, recruits and support for their cause within these communities. Historically they have used a variety of media channels, such as television, radio and publishing, in order to communicate their views. During the past decade of huge global growth of the internet, Al Qaida influenced extremists for example, have made increasing use of this medium. The internet and its fast and anonymous means can contribute to individual radicalization processes. There are concerns about the illegal use of the internet for terrorist purposes and the misuse of legal / neutral websites. The question is if we can limit the use of internet for terrorist purposes, without affecting our online freedom. Therefore this project is based on a public-private dialogue.
Those last two sentences are particularly ominous. First, because they show no awareness that any attempt to "clean" the Internet inevitably affects everyone else's online freedom. Given that there are no hard and fast rules about what is terrorism, the past teaches us that there is always collateral damage in the form of over-reaction -- not least because people understandably err on the side of caution in this area.
The other reason we ought to fear this new initiative is that it is based on getting the private sector to act as online police, using a "non-legislative" approach:
The main objective of this project is to develop a non-legislative 'framework' that consists of general principles and best practices. The general principles will be developed through a bottom up process where the private sector will be in the lead. Through a series of workshops and conferences, the private and public sector will define their problems and try to draw up principles. These principles can be used as a guideline or gentlemen’s agreement, and can be adopted by many partners. They will describe responsibilities and concrete steps public and private partners can take to counter the illegal use of Internet.
This is of a piece with similar attempts to get ISPs to spy on their users, or search engines to censor their results: since everything is done through a non-legislative 'framework', there is no oversight and no formalized legal recourse. It's part of a general move to control the Internet through extra-judicial means, thus avoiding all the risks of a democratic debate or the need to produce any evidence that the measures are effective and proportionate. Significantly, it's also one of ACTA's key (bad) ideas.
Even though the project is being sold as a voluntary "gentlemen’s agreement", the reality is that lurking in the background is the usual implicit threat:
The covenant, the principles and the practices should be non-legislative because they will be adopted on a voluntary basis with support from the industry. It should also be possible to implement them quickly in any European Member State, or even worldwide. Nevertheless, it is possible that one of the results will be a call for better regulation by governments.
That is, if industry doesn't adopt the principles and practices -- and implement them "quickly", too -- it will be forced to do so through legislation.
It's not even clear that "limiting terrorist use of internet" is the best way to fight terrorism. There is an argument that it would be better for as much terrorist activity as possible to take place where security agencies can keep it under close surveillance. Shutting down the more obvious sites and means of communication will simply drive terrorists deeper underground, and make it harder to monitor and thus counter them.
So once more, we have the worst of both worlds: while the rights of the general public are diminished further in the name of "combatting terrorism", the actual fight will be made more difficult.