August 29, 2014

Shared space

What difference does the Internet make? This is the modern policy maker's equivalent of "To be, or not to be?" This question has underlain so many net.wars as politicians and activists have wrangled over whether and how the same laws should apply online as offline. Transposing offline law to the cyberworld is fraught with approximately the same dilemmas as transposing a novel to film. What do you keep? What do you leave out? What whole chapter can be conveyed in a single shot? In some cases it's obvious: consumer protection for purchases looks about the same. But the impact of changing connections and the democratization of worldwide distribution? Frightened people whose formerly safe, familiar world is slipping out of control often fail to make rational decisions.

This week's inaugural VOX-Pol conference, kept circling around this question. Funded under the EU's FP-7, the organizing group is meant to be an "academic research network focused on researching the prevalence, contours, functions, and impacts of Violent Online Political Extremism and responses to it". Attendees included researchers from a wide variety of disciplines from computer science to social science. If there was any group that was lacking, I'd say it was computer security practitioners and researchers, many of whose on-the-ground experience studying cyberattacks and investigating the criminal underground could be helpfully emulated by this group.

Some help could also perhaps be provided by journalists with investigative experience. In considering SOCMINT, for example - social media intelligence - people wondered how far to go in interacting with the extremists being studied. Are fake profiles OK? And can you be sure whether you're studying them...or they're studying us? The most impressive presentation on this sort of topic came from Aaron Zelin who, among other things, runs a Web-based clearinghouse for jihadi primary source material.

It's not clear that what Zelin does would be legal, or even possible in the UK. The "lone wolf" theory holds that someone alone in his house can be radicalized simply by accessing Web-based material; if you believe that, the obvious response is to block the dangerous material. Which, TJ McIntyre explained, is exactly what the UK does, unknown to most of its population.

McIntyre knows because he spent three years filing freedom of information requests to find out. So now we know: approximately 1,000 full URLs are blocked under this program, based on criteria derived from Sections 57 and 58 of the 2000 Terrorism Act and Sections 1 and 2 of the 2006 Terrorism Act. The system is "voluntary" - or rather, voluntary for ISPs, not voluntary for their subscribers. McIntyre's FOI answers have found no impact assessment or study of liability for wrongful blocking, and no review of compliance with the 1998 Human Rights Act. It also seems to contradict the Council of Europe's clear statement that filtering must be necessary and transparent.

This is, as Michael Jablonski commented on Twitter yesterday, one of very few conferences that begins by explaining the etiquette for showing gruesome images. Probably more frightening, though, was the presentations laying out the spread - and even mainstreaming - of interlinked extremist groups across the world. Many among Hungary's and Italy's extremist networks host their domains in the US, where the First Amendment ensures their material is not illegal.

This is why the First Amendment can be hard to love: defending free speech inevitably means defending speech you despise. Repeating that "The best answer to bad speech is more, better speech" is not always consoling. Trying to change the minds of the already committed is frustrating and thankless. Jihadi Trending(PDF), a report produced by the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as "the world's first counter-extremism think tank", reminds us that's not the piont. Released a few months ago and a fount of good sense, Nick Cohen reminds us in the foreword: "The true goal of debate, however, is not to change the minds of your opponents, but the minds of the watching audience."

Among the report's conclusions:
- The vast majority of radicalized individuals make contact first through offline socialization.
- Negative measures - censorship and filtering - are ineffective and potentially counter-productive.
- There are not enough positive measures - the "better speech" above to challenge extremist ideologies.
- Better ideas are to improve digital literacy and critical consumption skills and debunk propaganda.

So: what difference does the Internet make? It lets extremists use Twitter to tell each other what they had for breakfast. It lets them use YouTube to post videos of their cats. It lets them connect to others with similar views on Facebook, on Web forums, in chat rooms, virtual worlds, and dating sites, and run tabloid news sites that draw in large audiences. Just like everyone else, in fact. And, like the rest of us, they do not own the infrastructure.

The best answer came late on the second day, when someone commented that in the physical world neo-Nazi groups do not hang out with street gangs; extreme right hate groups don't go to the same conferences as jihadis; and Guantanamo detainees don't share the same physical space with white supremacists or teach other tactics. "But they will online."


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.