Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Banning Online Terrorist Recruiters? Be Careful About What You Wish For

Terrorists recruiting vulnerable, unsophisticated, youngsters online has been a concern for quite a while now. I think it's a reasonable concern, but I'm not all that surprised at what an ICSR report said recently.

The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, or ICSR, is a sort of think tank over in London. They say that they're against radicalization and political violence, and I have no reason to doubt that. On the other hand, I don't know that much about the outfit.

They did make some sensible observations though, which got reported today:
  • "LONDON (Reuters) - Western governments have overstated the role the Internet plays in the recruitment of militants, and measures to block extremist material are 'crude, expensive and counterproductive,' a report said on Tuesday...." (March 10, 2009) (Reuters via Wired)
  • "Strategies to combat online extremism can be crude, expensive and counter-productive, says a report by experts...." (March 10, 2009) (BBC)
Those "crude and expensive" efforts have been making the news, too:
  • "Extremist groups in Southeast Asia are increasingly using the internet and social networking to radicalise the youth of the region, said a new security report released on Friday...." (March 6, 2009) (Reuters via International Herald Tribune)
The Reuters article in Wired did a pretty good job of discussing technical issues related to blocking online terror recruitment.

Bottom line? It would be somewhere between hard and impossible.

I think I see their point. Let's say that someone decided to use blocking software to keep terrorists and other extremists from getting viewers. An obvious starting place would be to start with words and phrases that Muslim extremists, the white power types, and others typically use.

The software would look for words and phrases like
  • black
  • red
  • satan america
  • white
  • yellow
Then, when people couldn't find any references to red paint, black eyed peas, or the White House, programmers would start refining the software. I don't think they'd ever get it "right:" The meaning of words in English, at least, is very contextual. That's one reason that we don't have really effective AI that can understand natural language yet. But that's a whole different topic.

Blocking Terrorists or Silencing Criticism?

The Reuters/Wired article brought up something I'm very concerned about.

"...Officials have argued that it should be possible to filter militant material in the same way authorities crack down on child pornography.

"But the report said this analogy was flawed: issues surrounding militant content are less clear cut, and it is politically hard to decide what is illegal and what is merely offensive...." (Reuters via Wired)

It's awfully easy to see strongly-worded criticism as a terrorists threat. Sometimes the strongly-worded criticism actually is a terroristic threat, uttered by someone with strong feelings and self-control issues, but no serious intent to cause harm.

Particularly since I experienced the golden age of political correctness in American academia, I'm very concerned about attempts to control the ideas people are allowed to express, how they express them, and how they discuss ideas that other people were allowed to present. As I said in a previous post, "Knowledge is Power: and I Like Power".

Freedom is precious. And, although I understand how important being safe is, I'm inclined to agree with Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." (from Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759 (The Quotations Page)

"One of the drawbacks of having freedom is that, after a while, it's easy to forget about the alternatives." (March 8, 2009)

Related posts: News and views: Background:
  • ICSR home page
    Countering Radicalization and Political Violence
Related posts, on censorship, propaganda, and freedom of speech.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.