Shutting Down Jihadist Websites Won't Stop Terrorism

Censoring the web isn't just illiberal—it’s bad policy.  

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

The homepage of al-Fateh is a colorful mess straight out of the nineties. Cartoon squirrels and a rainbow adorn the banner, which welcomes kids to the online home of a magazine for the “builders of the future.” In one corner, an animated child whose head is covered by a polka-dot scarf flashes a peace sign in front of the Dome of the Rock.

The site, named after a character called “the conqueror,” is far from harmless. Published by a Hamas-affiliated organization, its illustrations, games, and stories encourage terrorism and heap praise upon suicide bombers.

One issue of the children’s magazine included a photo of a bomber’s severed head lying on the ground, still covered by a headscarf. “Her head was severed from her pure body; however, her veil remained in order to adorn it, to paradise,” the caption read.

In the days since terror struck Paris, European officials have began to look more closely at websites like al-Fateh. French and Belgian lawmakers have already proposed laws to silence online hate speech, in an attempt to counter the widespread use of online-communication platforms by followers of the Islamic State for propaganda and incitement.

The laws follow a European tradition of restrictive laws on hate speech, but with a 21st-century surveillance-state twist. Existing laws, which have been in place for decades, are designed to protect at-risk groups from harm. They target racism, hatred, defamation, the incitement of violence, and Holocaust denial. But the new proposals go further, restricting the entire citizenry’s civil liberties in the name of national security. And they may do little to make France and Belgium safer.

The proposal passed by French lawmakers updates a 1955 law, giving the government the authority during a state of emergency to block websites and social-media accounts that encourage or condone terrorism. President François Hollande declared a 12-day state of emergency on the night of the terror attacks last week, and France’s parliament voted Friday to extend the period for three months.

In Belgium, lawmakers are considering a number of measures that would expand the government’s powers to surveil, including a proposal to allow it to shut down pro-jihad websites. “We must be honest, when we are talking about terrorists, then privacy doesn’t exist,” a top Belgian security official told The New York Times last week.

The proposals follow a familiar pattern: In the weeks and months after a national or regional crisis, citizens are more willing to give up personal privacy in favor of national security.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., for example, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, a bundle of heavy-handed national-security laws that included expanded authority for electronic surveillance. According to polling from Gallup, in January 2002, nearly half of Americans believed the government should do everything it can to prevent terrorism, even if it means civil liberties are violated. By this summer, that number had dropped to 30 percent.

Earlier this year, after a group of gunmen associated with al-Qaeda stormed the downtown Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, French parliament passed a set of surveillance laws that observers called France’s PATRIOT Act.

Many modern European hate-speech laws are a product of World War II—but hate speech and terrorism look very different in 2015 than they did a half-century ago. Taking down images of swastikas posted in a public square to protect a persecuted population is not quite the same as shutting down hateful websites in the name of national security.

For one, the effectiveness of restricting online speech to prevent terrorism is unproven. Estelle Massé, the lead EU policy analyst for Access, a digital human-rights group, says the French government had already given itself the power to take down websites after the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year. There’s very little information available about how it was used. Massé says she only knows that fewer than 100 websites were blocked under the provision.

But the ease with which anyone—from a food blogger in Portland to a jihadist in Raqqa—can disseminate information on the Internet makes it effectively impossible to silence a persistent voice online.

A useful (if relatively innocuous) example can be found in Europe’s long-running campaign to shut down the Pirate Bay, a massive online host of torrents that allows Internet users to download pirated songs and movies. The Sweden-based site has been the target of raids and legal action from European officials for nearly its entire 12-year existence. Over the years, it has been shut down numerous times, but it always pops up again, often under a new domain name.

Attempts to shutter terrorist social-media accounts have been met with more success. Twitter regularly deactivates terrorists’ accounts: This April, the company said it suspended 10,000 accounts associated with the Islamic State, cutting out a chunk of the group’s network, which is estimated to include between 50,000 and 90,000 accounts.

A pair of researchers at Brookings found that Twitter’s suspensions were effective because they targeted the network’s most influential users, hobbling, at least temporarily, the Islamic State’s online propaganda machine. But they also drew some troubling conclusions: The crackdown led the remaining supporters of the terrorist group to isolate themselves from outside voices. Caught in an “echo chamber,” they may be more likely to be radicalized, and more rapidly, they said.

Speaking by phone from her home in Brussels, where an ongoing security lockdown has quieted the usually bustling capital, Massé said the French law is a violation of free speech, because it lacks oversight and checks and balances. Since the law puts the responsibility to take down sites in the hands of the powerful interior ministry rather than requiring a court order, there’s potential for governmental overreach.

Since the U.S. historically favors preserving First Amendment rights over protecting at-risk groups (hate-speech laws, for example, are unpopular among Americans) Europe’s shift is unlikely to be mirrored across the Atlantic.

But in the wake of the Paris attacks, even American lawmakers have pushed for the government to shut down terrorists’ websites. At a recent congressional hearing, Joe Barton, a Republican representative from Texas, asked the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission whether there’s “something we can do” to shut down “Internet sites” that spread Islamic State propaganda.

Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman, told the panel that his commission does not have the authority to shut down terrorists’ websites or social media accounts.

Even Marco Rubio has floated the idea. Asked last week about his thoughts on fellow candidate Donald Trump’s call to close down mosques, Rubio said, “It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down anyplace—whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an Internet site—anyplace where radicals are being inspired.” He went on to blame “the traitor” Edward Snowden for incapacitating U.S. intelligence programs and leaving law enforcement blind to where radicalization is occurring.

While lawmakers in Washington likely won’t take up a bill to give the government the power to censor the Internet anytime soon, the U.S. is not immune from the shockwaves of the Paris attacks. Calls for weaker standards of digital encryption, the backbone of online security for everyday users, follow the same pattern as new European policies: They infringe on individual civil liberties in the name of national security, without providing any proof that the change would actually make the country safer.