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Free Speech Vs. Terrorism on the Internet

Joe Lieberman recently called for Google to pull down a number of YouTube videos that showed attacks by Al Qaeda on US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. YouTube reviewed the clips in question and removed 80 some videos for violation of their community guidelines because they “depicted gratuitous violence, advocated violence, or used hate speech,” but refused to pull down many of clips Lieberman criticized, and also refused to pull all content created by groups the US government designates as terrorist groups. In response to Lieberman, a YouTube blog post stated:

YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. We believe that YouTube is a richer and more relevant platform for users precisely because it hosts a diverse range of views, and rather than stifle debate we allow our users to view all acceptable content and make up their own minds.

In another example from the New York Times we learn that a Belgian woman, Malika El Aroud, is using the Internet as her primary vehicle to support jihad. She was married to a former Al Qaeda operative who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, on September 9, 2001. This assassination was almost surely carried out on the orders of Osama Bin Laden to get rid Masoud, who would have been the United States’ primary ally in the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. It seems that Belgian law allows a great deal of free speech and that she stays within its bounds–she was kicked out of Switzerland for running similar jihadi sites.

One of the foundational questions in the study (and use) of the Internet is whether or not online speech, and the Internet in general, should be regulated. It also goes to the heart of questions of whether the Internet and its widely available interactive technologies, low barriers to entry and easy publication tools will be used to support democracy, or, in the dystopian view, will be used to support terrorism and to spread messages of hate.

These examples show that the Internet, like any communication medium, can and will be used by both democracy advocates and terrorists. The issue is whether use by some for terrorism should lead to broader regulation to limit free speech on the Internet in democracies. Those with ideologies we would find abhorrent will use the same tools as the rest of the community at large to communicate. We wouldn’t ban the use of cell phones because terrorists use them, or regulate the speech allowed on a cell phone, so why would we do it on the Internet? The question of regulation is also much tricker on the Internet–where the old hub and spoke mass media model and related regulation regimes do not fit. Regulation in regards to terrorism is further clouded by the general recalibration of civil liberties and speech in the US following 9/11. Worse, the speech that often leads to cases that lead to regulation or court decisions often comes from the truly offensive and those with politically indefensible positions–terrorists, pornographers, etc. The danger, and yet one more unanswered question, is where do you stop limiting speech once you start, and who gets to choose?

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