This article originally appeared in New York Transatlantic on September 23, 2017.
Violent scenes of car bombs, beheadings and shootings dominate the news cycle, depicting a world where radicalization—particularly of youths—takes place at a calamitous rate. A reason for the spread of this extremism: modern technology and the internet, which has become a street corner where terrorists shout like town criers.
In the wake of a series of attacks across Europe, including in London, Nice and Barcelona, heads of state organized a forum on preventing terrorist use of the internet during the UN General Assembly Leaders’ Week. UK Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Google Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker shared their resolve to restrict terrorists’ ability to incite, coordinate or direct violent extremism and to counter their narratives of hate.
Such an extensive mandate, however, is dangerous. Whomever defines “terrorist” or an “act of terrorism” will wield immense power, as the categories are often determined by political interests.
Though there are laws regulating hate speech and cases of individuals found guilty for incitement in European states, this is not true internationally. In the US, for example, incitement is limited to language that almost immediately sparks violence, destruction or other illegal activity. Meanwhile, propaganda is broadly defined as partial information published to advance a particular agenda, often by playing off people’s emotions. This could mean almost anything.
Considerable focus was placed on improving the response time and reach of efforts to take down new terror content—be it videos of violence or instructions on bomb making—and removing the duplicated, archived or otherwise difficult to find copies, referred to as “legacy content.”
Prime Minister Gentiloni highlighted the need to improve efficiency. Efforts must be “more rapid, more sophisticated, more capable to reach other platforms,” he said, and “more ambitious, also, in its initiatives.”
And ambitious aims were abundant. Prime Minister May advocated for both improving technology to prevent uploading and addressing terrorist use of encryption technology. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte agreed, stating that efforts cannot only include “reactive measures,” but that governments must partner with civil society and internet providers to “stop the people who are actively spreading the content itself.”
Yet, this all but endorses the arrest of individuals on the basis of what they’ve posted online.
Nelson Mandela remained on the US State Department terrorism watch list and his African National Congress party classified as a terrorist organization until 2008. Yet, the acts of Ku Klux Klan members and white nationalists today are not and cannot be defined as domestic terrorism because there are no laws defining it. And that’s with good reason.
Definitions of terrorism can be broadly applied to a range of violent activities, opening the door to criminalization of particular ideologies rather than criminal acts. This risk is even greater when applied to incitement or recruitment.
Spanish Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, boasted during the forum that Spain reformed its criminal code in 2015, “penalizing the use of internet to extol terrorism and recruit terrorist combatants as well as self-radicalization through the internet.” These reforms were not well received by the opposition, however, which used such choice descriptions as “punitive populism” and “terrifying oligarchy.” Already in October of that year, nine young anarchists were arrested in an operation and accused of terrorism, perplexing legal experts and leading to protests.
Dutch Prime Minister Rutte was not ignorant of the dangers inherent to this legislative pursuit. “It can be challenging to strike a balance between security measures and… freedom of expression and practice,” he said. “We must maintain our online freedoms in a way that safeguards our values and our democracy.”
If states are to, as Prime Minister May advocated, “prevent [terrorist] content from being uploaded in the first place,” governments and internet providers will have to make incredibly difficult judgements, including what constitutes “legitimate” images of violence—such as news reports or human rights documentation—and which ideologies advance terrorism.
President Macron argues that tougher legislation is not only possible, but vital. “In the current world, with communication technology today, we as governments can no longer ensure that we can protect our fellow citizens from those who endanger them and kill our children,” he said. “Either we change our civilization or we go for much harsher rules.”
As the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism launches, the definitions of “terrorist,” “incitement” and “propaganda” will have to be carefully constructed and the implications of new legislation considered.
Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh said that “The war against terrorism is essentially a war of ideas, it’s essentially a war of ideology.” It’s therefore the responsibility of the assembled governments and non-state actors to be wary which ideologies they declare war on.