I participated today in a meeting at the United Nations organized by the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the Security Council. The focus was “on preventing and combatting abuse of ICT for terrorist purposes.” Despite the description, there was considerable nuance, with a number of speakers noting that terrorists (it seemed to be all about ISIS) radicalize through a variety of mechanisms, not merely through online interactions. The points for my remarks are here:
- Thank you for inviting me to this important meeting. I have found the contributions from the earlier panels to be extremely enlightening.
- I share the view that combatting terrorism is a critical responsibility of the Security Council, Member States and other authorities. We have already heard today about the sophistication terrorists bring to bear on their online use, in part because they are largely young and, like other youth worldwide, have grown up with the Internet and social media.
- In the brief time that I have, I want to lay out five points that I hope will orient us as a matter of global values embedded in human rights law and perhaps allow us to take a step back and think about not only terrorism but also how to protect and promote the Internet’s broad value as a tool for public participation, accountability, individual development.
- I have been pleased at the level of nuance on the panels this morning. Outside this room, it is common to hear discussion of the Internet as a threat, a vast arena that terrorists manipulate and seemingly control. They do not control it, of course. In fact, the Internet may be a place for deradicalization as much as radicalization. The global reach of the net, the vast amount of information that it allows everyone to access who is not under a regime of censorship, the communication it allows, can be a tool to counter the extremism that results in violence.
- For my part, I need to see data. The discussion today, as framed by the concept note, presupposes that most terrorists radicalize online. As earlier panelists suggested, this is likely not true. Or at least, as the GWU paper presented earlier noted, as did the presentation from the OSCE and others, the roots of radicalization, its causes, are diverse, varying from case to case, and online space may only be a small part of the process. Recent high-profile tragedies – the Paris and the San Bernardino killings, the Boston Marathon bombers, these involved siblings or spouses who almost certainly radicalized each other face to face. You can go back to 9/11 and earlier to see complicated patterns of radicalization. Simply put, the Internet is in all likelihood not the main problem.
- Let me say a few words about legal framework. Most but not all countries are party to the ICCPR, and it’s well-known that Article 19 protects everyone’s right to hold opinions without interference, and everyone’s right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any media. I emphasize this last point – as it seems to predict the existence of the Internet. Restriction on opinion are not permissible, whereas restrictions on expression must be provided by law and necessary to protect a legitimate specified government objective such as national security, public order, and so forth. Any restrictions that are designed to prevent terrorism must be necessary and proportionate to achieve that aim. The proportionality requirement need not be seen solely as a constraint. It also allows – indeed requires – a framework for ensuring that restrictions on terrorist content and communication do not undermine everyone’s right to access information and the existence of civic space, which could indeed have a counterproductive effect itself.
- Censorship and other forms of content regulation: Two sub-points here. First, as much as I understand the need to target recruitment, financing and incitement activities by terrorist groups, I am also concerned that the umbrella of counter-terrorism and national security will be used to restrict all sorts of legitimate expression under human rights law. We already see the expansion of restrictions on these grounds. Second, but related, it is critical that restrictions be necessary and that governments (and corporate actors) not restrict information that may in fact have a deradicalizing impact. Indeed, even the most awful videos online my have the impact of repelling potential recruits, and so there needs to be caution.
- And last, there has been some discussion this morning and just now of encryption, and it comes up regularly in public debate. Local law enforcement focus on device encryption, or data at rest generally, while nationals and intelligence officials talk also about date in transit, such as conversations or messaging in real-time. I have reported to the Human Rights Council on this topic and anonymity, and I want to emphasize a few points. One, we need to have a broad and realistic concept of security, one that’s responsive not only to terrorism but also to identity theft, digital attacks, harassment, and much else that can harm individual livelihood and wellbeing and ability to exercise rights to freedom of opinion and expression. And at the center of such protection is encryption – the ability of individuals to secure their data, their identity, their connections and relationships. Second, encryption is simply math, and it’s open source, so efforts to undermine encryption in one place – say, smartphones, or messaging apps — do more to harm regular individuals than to disable terrorists, who can easily find ways to circumvent restrictions. And insecurity in one place generally leads to insecurity across the network. In other words, undermining encryption may in fact do very little to prevent terrorist activity but disproportionately interferes with individual expression, communication, access to information. Third, and finally, these are matters of public policy, not for governments to work out in a quiet room with the corporate sector.
I’ll conclude by saying that events like this – events that integrate human rights and security, that bring into the conversation a variety of stakeholders — are critical as you move forward.