This House would allow internet service providers to block access to extremist websites

The internet has become a major centre of extremist activity, one so important that Osama bin Ladin back in 2002 said that 90% of all jihadist activity will soon be through the media, which in turn is increasingly being dominated, at least from a jihadi point of view by the internet.[1] Often spread out geographically, communication online has become the primary tool for their discussion and organization. Not only cat-lovers but also radical Islamist movements have capitalised on the potential of the Internet. Using websites to spread their message, they have increased their reach in the 21st century, spreading its radical messages and gaining recruits in the West.[2]

This growth has sparked serious debate about the role of Internet intermediaries (ISPs like AOL or BT but also OSPs like Facebook, Google and Twitter) in the combatting of extremist, dangerous groups using the web as a platform. Some groups suggest that it is should fall to the individual intermediaries to self-police and to block sites that promote various brands of extremism. Others question whether this action will adulterate free access to the internet more generally, or if this duty should fall to private agents and not the state.

It is necessary to make something clear in this debate that the arguments stand in most legal contexts. With some tweaks one might use these arguments to discuss a mandate from the state to require that ISPs block these sites, or to discuss the arguments in the context of a regime in which ISPs have freedom to allow or disallow these sites. The various arguments have different weight and different emphasis given the paradigm considered. The arguments presented in this debate seek to be open enough to be utilized in varying contexts.

For the purpose of this debate, “extremist” can be taken broadly to mean any group that promotes popular revolution or violent action against the state, individual human beings or groups within society. This definition is quite broad, and the arguments put forward in the following debate can be used quite effectively even if the definition is broadened or narrowed to a degree.

[1] Zelin, A. et al. “The State of Global Jihad Online”. New America Foundation. January 2013. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds /Zelin20130201-NewAmericaFoundation.pdf  p.2

[2] Silber, M. and Bhatt, A., “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” The New York City Police Department, 2007. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/files/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf p.83

 

Title 
The freedom of speech can be curtailed when it represents a serious threat to society
Point 

Freedom of speech certainly may be curtailed when real harms can be shown to arise from it. Extremist sites serve as centers of dangerous dissent, whose members threaten all of society. They promote a message that is fundamentally bad speech, because it cannot it cannot be argued with and promotes aims that are so anathema to free society that its dissemination represents a true threat to people’s safety. The threat extremists represent to free society demands that their right to speech online be curtailed.[1] By blocking these sites, ISPs certainly are denying some freedom of speech, but it is a necessarily harmful form of speech that has no value in the global commons. Thus, there is essentially no real loss of valuable speech in censoring extremist websites.

[1] Kaplan, E. “Terrorists and the Internet”. Council on Foreign Relations. 8 January 2009. http://www.cfr.org/terrorism-and-technology/terrorists-internet/p10005

Counterpoint 

Denying extremists their right to speak threatens everyone’s freedom of speech. It is essential in a free society that people should be able to freely express their views without fear of reprisal, however extreme or unsavory their views are. If you value free speech you must be willing to defend that right for everyone, even for those you find repugnant.

Title 
ISPs are private service providers and should thus be able to have some filters on the most extreme spectrums of extremism
Point 

ISPs are ultimately private providers of a service. Because of this they should retain the right to restrict that service to certain groups. So long as ISPs make public their policy for what constitutes extremism so that consumers can decide if they want to opt into it, there is no real issue. There are many filters available to users to screen out certain materials already, for example internet providers offer customers the option to block adult content,[1] and this is merely an extension of this approach. Businesses must be able to sort their own ethos. Some ISPs may not opt to use this power given to them by the state, but others may not wish to carry content they consider dangerous. Because extremism is on the very fringe of speech and opinion, and because of the potential dangers that can arise from it, it is only right that the state give some ability to ISPs to block objectionable content.

[1] BBC News, “Internet providers offer parents bar on porn” 11 October 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15252128

Counterpoint 

While ISPs are private firms, they perform a public service. They have a special duty in society as providers of information not to bias that information through private censorship policies. When they embark on any form of site-blocking, ISPs cease to be doing their job. Governments should maintain that ISPs act as neutral gatekeepers of information and not take up the role of ad hoc censor. Moreover this would be different from filtering adult content as that is a service that is provided if the subscriber wishes it, if this was the case with extremist content then such a block would be useless as those interested in extremist content would just opt for packages that do not restrict access. 

Title 
It makes it more difficult for extremists to organize and spread their message when blocked
Point 

The ISPs are the gatekeepers of information. When the internet places no moral judgments on content and the ISPs let all information through without commentary, it lends an air of permissiveness to the beliefs put forward, that they are held by reasonable people. The internet is a great tool for education, but also one that can be used to sow misinformation and extreme rhetoric. Extremist groups have been able to use the internet to a remarkable extent in promoting their beliefs and recruiting new members. Worse still, the administrators of these extremist sites are able to choke of things like dissenting commenters, giving the illusion that their view is difficult, or even impossible to reasonably challenge. In doing so they create an echo chamber for their ideas that allows them to spread and to affect people, particularly young people susceptible to such manipulation. The best example of this activity is in the international jihadist community and its reaching out to people in the West. Young disaffected Muslims have received an introduction to militant Islamism from sites often based abroad, but also some domestically, increasing the number of believers in an extreme, militant form of that religion.[1] By denying these people a platform on the internet, ISPs are able to not only make a moral stance that is unequivocal, but also to choke off access to new members who can be saved by never seeing the negative messages.

[1] Kaplan, E. “Terrorists and the Internet”. Council on Foreign Relations. 8 January 2009. http://www.cfr.org/terrorism-and-technology/terrorists-internet/p10005

Counterpoint 

While it is true that extremists seek to undermine and bend the systems of discourse to be as favorable as possible, they are a tiny fringe minority of opinion, and the number of sites challenging their skewed narrative is far more numerous. Even young people are able to surf the web with great skill, and can easily see that the extremist view is fringe in the extreme. There is also little evidence that preventing access to some sites would make it more difficult for extremists, when large numbers of jihadi websites went offline in 2012 discussion simply moved elsewhere and leaders emphasized recruiting more people offline.[1]

[1] Zelin, A. et al. “The State of Global Jihad Online”. New America Foundation. January 2013. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds /Zelin20130201-NewAmericaFoundation.pdf  Pp.10, 15

Title 
Blocking these sites makes it more difficult for extremist groups to coordinate extremist action in the real world
Point 

The greatest fear people have about extremist groups is not their rhetoric, but the actions the rhetoric precipitates. Extremists have proven adept at setting up basic websites through which to build communities to organize and coordinate extreme actions. This means in the most limited form the coordinating of extremist demonstrations and rallies, but also violent and terrorist actions. The best example of this is As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media arm, which has used an extensive web presence to galvanize supporters and to coordinate terrorist attacks.[1] In using the tools of the mass media extremists have succeeded in bringing supporters to their cause, people who are often geographically diffuse, into a close community capable of action and disruption that harms all citizens. If blocking these websites entirely ISPs would pose a significant barrier to these extremist groups organising. Even more damaging to these networks in the long terms would be the drop in recruitment due to a reduction in their reach. ISPs can significantly hamper these organizations from ever embarking on serious violent actions, and from coalescing in the first place by denying them their most effective springboard. The most important effect is in the prevention of radicalization in the first place. Preventing, or at least hampering access to extremist materials serves to keep impressionable, swayable people from experiences that might turn them to extremism.[2]

[1] Kaplan, E. “Terrorists and the Internet”. Council on Foreign Relations. 8 January 2009. http://www.cfr.org/terrorism-and-technology/terrorists-internet/p10005

[2] Silber, M. and Bhatt, A., “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” The New York City Police Department, 2007. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/files/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf p.83 

Counterpoint 

Extremist groups will always find ways to organize direct actions, be it via in-person meetings, furtive use of social networking tools, or even by using untraceable black sites online that ISPs cannot block because they cannot see them. The result of blocking these views from the public internet only serves to push the extremists further underground. 

Title 
ISPs are better placed than governments to make decisions on when and who to block
Point 

As the access providers for the internet ISPs are best placed to implement policies for blocking extremist sites and so are the natural option for deciding when and which sites to block. Furthermore, because the state is often slow due its extensive bureaucracy, it is less able to respond with alacrity to extremist sites popping up online. ISPs on the other hand are likely to be able to act as soon as they are informed of the existence of a website whereas working through government would simply add an extra layer of requests and orders. The ISPs blocking the site also creates a fire break between the state and the action so not giving the extremists the ammunition that state intervention might give them. Essentially, the good result of eliminating these sites from public access is accomplished faster, more effectively, and with lesser backlash than if any other agent did the blocking.

Counterpoint 

Putting the power to censor the internet, no matter how stringent or specific the guidelines, into the hands of a private organization is misguided. It is the state not individual ISPs who are needed to assess how dangerous a site is, whether it is actually promoting extremism, and ultimately make a decision as to whether a site needs to be blocked. The ISPs may end up being the actors that implement the policy but it has to be government that decides which websites to block and why. This also means that the decision would be much more centralised. Leaving this decision to the discretion of individual ISPs will mean that some websites will be blocked on some ISPs and not on others. Only government can ensure that there is consistency.

Title 
Everyone, even extremists, deserve their freedom of expression protected
Point 

No matter how distasteful, or extreme, their opinions may be, everyone should have the right to voice them freely and publicly. That is the very essence of a free society. When groups presume to judge good speech from bad, and to shut off the channel by which the designated bad speech may flow, it abrogates its duty to protect the rights of all. When ISPs do this, which they do when they block sites they designate as extremist, they rob the people of their fundamental role as the final arbiters of acceptable speech in the marketplace of ideas, taking that power unto themselves without any form of democratic or moral mandate. Such a state of affairs is anathema to the continuation of a free society.[1] Speech can be legally curtailed only when there is a very real and manifest harm arising from it. But that is not the case here, where the participants are few and scattered, and those who would take exception to what the extremists have to say can easily opt out online. When extremists try to organize terrorist action online, then the government should step into protect its citizens. That duty does not fall to the ISPs.

[1] Chomsky, Noam. “His Right to Say it”. The Nation. 28 February 1981. http://www.chomsky.info/articles/19810228.htm   

Counterpoint 

Freedom of speech is important, but must be curtailed when people are threatened.  Extremists are a very real threat because their messages and actions galvanize people to take violent, disruptive actions against the state and its citizens. ISPs have a right, and even a responsibility to block extremist websites if it is written into the contract when a user purchases the service. When people opt into an ISP they accept the parameters of the service, so their freedom is not being limited by the blocking of extremist content as they have already accepted that extremist websites are not a part of the access package they bought.

Title 
ISPs should be required to maintain Net Neutrality
Point 

The internet is such a great thing because it is a free market of ideas in which all beliefs can be submitted for the scrutiny of the global online community. Debate online and rational argument serves as a major check on the extreme views of the political fringe. By maintaining net neutrality in the provision of internet and not blocking websites, ISPs allow this process of the exchange and scrutinizing of ideas on which liberal democratic society relies.[1] A neutral stance upholds the highest principles of the freedom, and allows people to feel safe in the veracity and representativeness of the internet content they are provided, and unafraid of artificially constructed bias.

[1] Seythal, T. “Holocaust Denier Sentenced to Five Years”. The Washington Post. 15 February 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/15/AR2007021501283.html

Counterpoint 

Taking a neutral stance is a tacit endorsement of the validity of the message being spread as being worthy of discussion. Extremism does not deserve its day in court, even if the outcome were a thumping victory for reason and moderation. Besides, the nature of extremists is that they are not amenable to being convinced by reason or argument. Their beliefs are impervious to facts, and that is why debate is a pointless exercise except to give them a platform by which to spread their message, organize, and validate themselves to a wider audience.

Title 
ISPs are not well placed to make judgments on what constitutes extremism
Point 

ISPs are businesses, not scholars or governments. They do not have the expertise to effectively define the parameters of what constitutes extremism or when a certain site is such, and cannot gauge the extent of damage the site is having. If governments give the power to ISPs to take down extremist sites they are giving these companies the ability to dissipate the freedom of the internet on the basis of its own judgment.[1] That is a very dangerous power to give the agents that are the gatekeepers of information to the people. Even if the state sets guidelines for ISPs to follow, it will be difficult to police their decisions effectively and will set the dangerous precedent that service providers should have a degree of power over what content citizens can consume. The ISPs also face the risk of legal challenge by groups blocked that claim to not be advocates of extremism at all so burdening the ISPs with long and costly court battles which would effectively be being fought on behalf of the government. Ultimately private actors cannot be given the authority of the public censor.

[1] Mitchell, S. “BT Resists Move to Make ISPs Block Extremist Content”. PC Pro. 7 February 2012. http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/372628/bt-resists-move-to-make-isps-block-extremist-content

Counterpoint 

The ISPs would not be defining the parameters of what constitutes extremism; they would simply be interpreting the parameters that are given to them by government. They do not need to gauge the extent of the harm from a site simply determine whether it falls within the kind of site they are to be blocking. There would be no expectation that the ISPs would need to work out complex cost-benefit analyses. ISPs, as the purveyors of the internet are perfectly capable of policing their own service, and are well-placed to do so because they manage the software that feeds the internet service. Furthermore, as private agents providing a service, they retain the right to alter the extent of that service if they see fit to do so.

Title 
Blocking extremists will make anti-terrorism surveillance more difficult as the organizations go underground
Point 

A major risk with any extremist organization is that its members, when put under significant legal pressure, will go underground, or find other means of communicating, or use any ISPs that not blocking extremist content. The power of ISPs, or the state for that matter, to actually stop the development of extremist networks is limited, as they will be able still to organize in secret, or even semi-publicly, via social networks and hidden websites that evade detection by the censors. As Mark Burgess, director of the World Security Institute warns ““too much focus on closing down websites could also be counter-productive, since it likely forces terrorist websites to go underground to the so-called ‘deep’ or hidden web.”[1]

Terrorist groups visible profile would be blunted, but it would not guarantee any positive gains in terms of stamping down on the number of extremists. Indeed, when extremists are driven from public channels it will be ever harder for the government to keep track of their doings and of their leaders. The result of this censorship is a more careful organization that now has a sense of victimhood against the society that censors it, which it can use to encourage even more extreme acts from its members and can spin to its advantage during recruitment efforts. By leaving them in the open extremists feel more comfortable acting within the confines of the law and are thus less dangerous, even if they are more visible.

[1] Andrews, S., “The dark side of the web”, PC Pro, 9 March 2010, http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/356254/the-dark-side-of-the-web/4

Counterpoint 

Forcing extremists underground can only serve the cause of justice. With them out of the spotlight they are less likely to drag in new recruits among casual, open-minded internet-goers. Underground they are less visible, less legitimate-seeming, and less likely to be able to build an organization capable of violent action.

Title 
Censorship provides a propaganda victory to its targets
Point 

By denying people the ability to access sites set up by extremists, ISPs serve to increase extremists’ mystique and thus the demand to know more about the movement and its beliefs. When the public appears to oppose something so vociferously that it is willing to have its internet provider set aside the normal freedoms usually taken as granted, people begin to take notice. There are always groups of individuals that wish to set themselves up as oppositional to the norms of society, to transgress against its mores and thus challenge what they see to be a constraining system.[1] When extremist beliefs are afforded this mystique of extreme transgression, it serves to encourage people, particularly young, rebellious people to seek out the group and even join it. Such has been the case of young, disaffected Muslims in Europe, and the United Kingdom in particular. These young people feel discriminated against by the system and seek to express their anger in the public sphere. Islamists have been able to capitalize on this disaffection in their recruitment and have become all the more attractive since their sites have come under attack by the UK government.[2] By allowing free expression and debate, many people would be saved from joining the forces of extremism.

[1] Gottfried, Ted. Deniers of the Holocaust: Who They Are, What They Do, Why They Do It. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001.

[2] Jowitt, T. “UK Government Prepares to Block Extremist Websites”. Tech Week Europe. 9 June 2011. http://www.techweekeurope.co.uk/news/uk-government-prepares-to-block-extremist-websites-31283

Counterpoint 

While some people might be enticed by the mystique of extremism as transgressors, far more people will be put off by the positive statement of denying them their favored platform from which to speak. There will always be extremists, but their views must always be challenged and their influence curtailed wherever it is found

Bibliography 

Andrews, S., “The dark side of the web”, PC Pro, 9 March 2010, http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/356254/the-dark-side-of-the-web/4

BBC News, “Internet providers offer parents bar on porn” 11 October 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15252128

Chomsky, Noam. “His Right to Say it”. The Nation. 28 February 1981. http://www.chomsky.info/articles/19810228.htm

Gottfried, Ted. Deniers of the Holocaust: Who They Are, What They Do, Why They Do It. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001.

Jowitt, T. “UK Government Prepares to Block Extremist Websites”. Tech Week Europe. 9 June 2011. http://www.techweekeurope.co.uk/news/uk-government-prepares-to-block-extremist-websites-31283

Kaplan, E. “Terrorists and the Internet”. Council on Foreign Relations. 8 January 2009. http://www.cfr.org/terrorism-and-technology/terrorists-internet/p10005

Mitchell, S. “BT Resists Move to Make ISPs Block Extremist Content”. PC Pro. 7 February 2012. http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/372628/bt-resists-move-to-make-isps-block-extremist-content

Peters, John Durham. 2005. Courting the abyss: free speech and the liberal tradition. University of Chicago Press.

Seythal, T. “Holocaust Denier Sentenced to Five Years”. The Washington Post. 15 February 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/15/AR2007021501283.html

Silber, M. and Bhatt, A., “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” The New York City Police Department, 2007. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/files/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf

Zelin, A. et al. “The State of Global Jihad Online”. New America Foundation. January 2013. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds /Zelin20130201-NewAmericaFoundation.pdf

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