If we have too free an Internet, the terrorists win—or at least according to a recent cyber-terrorism report put out by the United Nations. Dubbed “The Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes,” the 148-page report essentially urges world governments to surveil Internet users via their service providers all over the planet in an attempt to assuage global terrorism. The Internet in its current form is so free, the argument goes, that those pesky terrorists can more easily get online and spread their extremist messages and propaganda to a wider audience through Internet forums, open wi-fi hotspots and blog posts.
Forums! Wi-fi! Blog posts! Given the report’s tone, you’d think that terrorists were running rampant on the web, aiming their nefarious online activities at Joe InternetUser and looking to either sign him up for the next suicide bombing or drain his bank account for some new digs (or both). Because, you know, everyone reading this has happened across a terrorist recruitment Facebook posting from that one quiet friend you had in high school.
Regardless of the actual presence of terrorists online, the UN is calling for large scale monitoring. Chief among the items of their voyeuristic wishlist include an “internationally agreed upon framework for retention of data held by ISPs” (a.k.a. browsing monitoring), social media tracking and restrictions, cell phone tracking and data retention, recording web communications like Skype, and real-name registration at open wi-fi points in places like cafes and libraries. So because all these things can be used by terrorists to communicate their extreme messages, we all must be monitored around the clock. Forget about our rights to free speech and the like, we’ve got bad guys to worry about.
It certainly doesn’t help that the UN currently has no agreed-upon definition for what a terrorist actually is. Do they bomb buildings, hack software, write blog posts defending other possible terrorists?
But terrorists can use any mode of communication to accomplish their goals, and certainly international terrorism wasn’t invented with the popularization of the web. Instead, this regulation idea is about controlling the flow of ideas and information.
To say the men behind these surveillance policy recommendations don’t understand the Internet would be incorrect—they absolutely understand. They understand that the Internet is the single most democratizing invention in the history of the world (apart from democracy, of course) in that my voice has the same potential to be as loud as yours or theirs. This puts fear in the hearts of the old men who get to recommend restrictive policies under the guise of protecting us from the big, bad terrorists.
When the printing press was invented, it represented an enormous opportunity for the widespread dissemination of knowledge via an easily reproducible, standardized system of letters and numbers. The entire world changed as a result of that ability to spread information across continents, toppling lords and kings in countless revolutions across Europe.
Now, we’ve replaced that system with ones and zeroes. The Internet is a reinvention of the printing press, and the spread of dissident ideas and information is much easier these days—all you need is an Internet connection. So, basically, we serfs are mass communicating now, and that has to be unnerving to anyone in a position of power.
The UN report itself seems to have very little to do with stopping concrete acts of terrorism (or even electronic ones), and instead is mainly concerned that the communicative powers of the web could potentially be used by terrorists. Well, so can telephones, the U.S. postal system and carrier pigeons—why not start monitoring birds for cribbed terror messages tied to their ankles? The nature of the web itself allows people to spread ideas quickly and easily, and that it can be used for evil does not necessitate a de facto worldwide monitoring scheme that would remove the backbone (a.k.a free, anonymous communication) from the medium.
In that sense, instead of a concerned, thoughtful entity, the UN betrays itself here as a fearful, out-of-touch organization lashing out at the world’s last bastion of true free speech—a position that mirrors the recent web regulation efforts in the U.S. with the likes of SOPA and PIPA.