Civil liberties groups tell Congress Internet censorship no solution to curbing terrorism

Civil liberties advocates testified to a House committee on terrorism that the government should use the Internet to track terrorist threats but that to censor websites would be counterproductive. -db

May 26, 2010
By Jill R. Aitoro

Federal authorities should rely on the Internet to identify and track terrorist threats and to launch counterterrorism campaigns, but not censor websites as a means to quell online recruitment by extremist groups, civil liberty advocates told a House panel on Wednesday.

“The dilemma is that the Internet is a forum for free speech and global commerce, but the underside of that is it can also be a forum for violence and global terror,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment. “How to respect individual freedom and access, and yet find those who abuse the Internet and stop them before they act is a huge and difficult challenge.”

The Christmas Day bomber who attempted to blow up a jetliner over Detroit was recruited via the Internet and trained in just six weeks, according to the FBI. Similarly, Philadelphia resident Colleen LaRose assumed the name Jihad Jane online and used YouTube and other Internet sites to post communications about staging attacks in the United States, Europe and South Asia.

“I want us to be as creative as possible in trying to get ahead of this problem, and find a way consistent with our Constitution to use law enforcement and intelligence to identify that small number of people capable of doing us harm,” Harman said.

Any rule or regulation that censors Internet content would prevent the law enforcement community from collecting valuable intelligence, argued representatives from civil liberty organizations in testimony.

“A mandate requiring the removal of terror-recruiting content online could be counterproductive to the fight against terrorism,” said John Morris Jr., general counsel of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Using appropriate legal process, government agencies may be able gain invaluable information about terrorist operations by monitoring online sites and services.”

The federal government should develop guidelines to effectively leverage new forms of communications by determining which individuals and websites agencies should monitor, without violating individuals’ rights to free speech and privacy, said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He argued sweeping surveillance authority held by law enforcement and the intelligence community “only adds hay to the haystack,” making it more difficult to identify the small group of individuals whose conduct online is a legitimate cause for concern.

Internet activities should be only one measure of suspicious conduct, said John Philip Mudd, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative. Law enforcement officials shouldn’t necessarily target an individual purchasing propaganda marketed by extremist groups online, but rather focus on an individual who is also under the age of 30, has traveled numerous times in the past three months and has recently purchased an airline ticket to Pakistan.

“Just looking at all people, practically speaking, is not doable,” Mudd said. “But look at people who have a series of behaviors” that cause them to fit the profile of someone more apt to participate in terrorist activities. “Freedom of speech aside, that’s worrisome.”

Brian Jenkins, senior adviser at the RAND Corp., noted the Internet has produced very few active terrorists. “Although this material is odious, offensive and troubling, as a marketing effort it would be judged a failure,” he said, adding forcing certain websites to shut down would result in an “online cat-and-mouse game,” diverting valuable resources from investigative and intelligence efforts.

“I would rather see us look at how we can devote those resources in a proper way to take advantage of the Internet,” Jenkins said. “The new electronic jungle is what we’re dealing with, and we’re not going to make it go away. Instead, we have to figure out how to keep from getting hurt and occasionally turn it to our advantage.”

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