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March 10, 2005

Democracy, Terrorism and the Internet (Part 2)

(Continued from: Democracy, Terrorism and the Internet, part 1)

Rebecca MacKinnon
I think a lot of my colleagues would like to say things so I’m going to keep my response short and enable a few other people to respond as well. First of all, I would throw a question back to you, so what would you propose to do about it? How would you propose to change the Internet’s architecture to make it better or is it more of a matter of, ok, so there is? We agree, I think, many of us here are part of an open source movement, many of us here are involved in projects to bring more civil society into using the Internet for good purposes and prevent it from being dominated by frivolous, trivial, negative things, but is the best way to improve the Internet through regulation and preventing the freedom? Or is it through bringing in more voices and more participation? So I guess that’s the question to you.

One thing about the lack of editor or too much cacophony… I used to work for CNN and one of the reasons I left CNN was that, as a foreign correspondent working overseas, I felt my editors had no interest in running stories that explained to Americans why foreigners hated Americans, and I felt ultimately the only way Americans could hear honest voices of non-Americans about their opinions was through discussing on the Internet because Americans are not getting these views through their edited mainstream media and that’s one reason why I think the Internet is very powerful.

Are there problems? Yes, I think we can expect that the Internet is going to reflect reality and reflect humanity, and human beings, I’m afraid, are an assorted, pretty perverted lot of sorry beings and we’re pretty imperfect and I think the Internet is going to reflect our human imperfections. But, at the same time, what would you do to prevent these imperfections? Would you regulate more, or is it making it more free, facilitating more open source, less commercialisation, facilitating, more citizen’s action, civil society action on the Internet to make it better?

Panellist [?]
One thing I should point out is that whenever new technology or a new tool becomes available people tend to think that the new technology will wipe out the old one. But the Internet is a complementary tool to an existing media, all gathering tools. The Internet is always in transition in technological development and it will keep changing according to what works and what doesn’t work.

Delegate from the floor
I did have one very quick comment… Ben, how long was it before the second edition of your book with the preface came out between the first edition? It was about ten years? Twenty years… so in twenty years, that preface you wrote for the second edition was so powerful that it wasn’t seen by anyone until it came out in that form. I know you have a website and it reaches some people… I think there’s an emerging way that each feeds the other in something powerful, and I agree completely with your position about how the powers of monopoly, the powers, in my view, of the intellectual property regime crowd have an ability to shut down the creativity of the Internet. We’re talking about terrorism at this conference, yet in a completely different domain, the domain of intellectual property, the forces are marshalling that may in fact block the application of the Internet in its application to change the minds of those who might otherwise be terrorists.

The goal is to bring the tools and power of the Internet to bear upon those, at this moment, least able to express themselves or to read what you say. So I think your point is very well taken, though we think we talk about terrorism, in fact you’ve raised this much broader issue of expression, reach, authority… who do we trust?

My only other comment would be that when the Internet first became something that the catholic church became aware of, in general the conservative catholic church viewed this as the tool of the devil and you’d speak with nuns about this and they’d say, “I couldn’t allow the children in our classes to ever look at it” and you’d say “have you seen the Pope’s website?”, and they’d say, “the Pope’s website?”. They’d look at the pope’s website and suddenly they’d completely change into someone who is now opening access. If we could do the same thing with the people that run the Madrasas, if we could provide Koranic materials to kids in schools that today have no access, the shorthand version of this is the Madrasa description of what you read to pages about soccer is a very short step.

Delegate from the floor
Mi nombre es Radamés Batista [?]. Yo vengo de República Dominicana en el Caribe. Estoy en este evento de Democracia – Terrorismo y debo confesar algo. Yo entiendo muy poco de Internet, pero mis hijos me han demostrado, están conectados a la red, que existe una generación como la nuestra que nos vamos prácticamente quedando como analfabetos. Y quiero tocar el punto de Democracia, Internet y Terrorismo en el sentido de que por ejemplo en mi país del 96 al 2000 hubo un gobierno que introdujo la tecnología de punta en las escuelas: computadoras e Internet.

Y la juventud en pleno aprovechó el momento. ¿Qué ocurre? Que hubo un cambio de gobierno en el 2000 y todo se cortó. Entonces, el nuevo presidente de 2000-2004 decía: “¿y para qué computadoras en las escuelas?”

Y un día, mi hijita de quince años llega y me dice: “¡pero este hombre es un terrorista!” Entonces, yo quiero ligar esta opinión al caso. ¿Qué es terrorismo? ¿Es solamente una bomba? ¿No es también terrorismo que para la educación moderna? Y ojalá, mi deseo aquí es que en el futuro –ahora volvió el gobierno que vuelve e introduce la tecnología y las computadoras en las escuelas–; mi deseo y mi pedido es, como miembro de un país del Tercer Mundo, si en el futuro si otro gobernante, utilizando un mecanismo democrático intenta con métodos terroristas de la educación hacer lo que se hizo en el pasado, que todos ustedes en el mundo ayuden a la denuncia, y que ayuden a que esta forma de terrorismo educativo, no vuelva ni tenga éxito. Porque yo entiendo, a pesar de que no entiendo Internet, que esto es el futuro. Que los que debemos adecuarnos, somos nosotros.

Martin Varsavsky
Maybe as the only bilingual person on the panel for Spanish and English, of course there are many other languages on this panel, I’ll just give a brief summary in English because I saw many of the people didn’t have the time to put on their headset and I think the gentleman is making a very valid point. He comes from the Dominican Republic, he himself feels he has been left out by the Internet generation but his children are part of the Internet generation. There was a government in the Dominican Republic which was very much in favour of installing Internet at schools, there was some activity at that level and then another government came and decided that this was not a priority. The gentlemen suggested something that I wouldn’t go as far as to agree with, but he believes that is also terrorist, in the sense that he believes that depriving the youth of access to the Internet makes them continue being illiterate and unable to fulfil a modern education. My comment to the gentleman here… I’m really sorry if I didn’t precisely translate, I see some hands here saying that’s not exactly what he said… but his recommendation was that we can name and shame the governments that do these things and I think that that’s not a bad recommendation and I think that we could have, and there are people who follow the development of the net and it’s not a bad idea to name and shame governments which reverse policies to connect people. Thank you.

Delegate from the floor
I work with an organisation called Women’s Learning Partnership that works in partnership with grassroots organisations in twenty countries. All work that would have been literally impossible without the use of Internet because we believe in constant communication and collaboration and brainstorming and it would not have happened ten years ago and it is the Internet that makes it possible. I also want to add that I’m of Iranian origin and we used to have workshops in Iran and every time we set up a workshop on human rights or democracy our facilitators and some of the participants would get into deep trouble. Now we’re doing this through e-learning and it is an extraordinary experience to have woman from Iran working out of Internet cafes, some working out of university outlets, and participating in discussions across the world and having their voice heard.

That is an extraordinarily important vehicle for building civil society, for carrying out north-south, south-south communication for advocacy. However, there is a challenge and this is where I would like the panel, whoever wishes, to respond, and that is that we should really have software and possibilities of interacting in various languages. We are very dependent on the main western languages and this limits our reach and limits our real interaction.

I also wanted to comment to John Gage that there are sites by every Ayatollah in Iran on the Internet and every one of them is putting out their views and the president, Khatami, is one them also and that in one of the religious cities they are working constantly to put all… on and the various interpretations on the Internet. Thank you.

Dan Gillmor
I think we will all agree with you that the English centricity of the Internet is a problem and not a virtue. As technology, as the hardware gets cheaper, as it does relentlessly, the ability to do things will become more widespread as networks are created in nations and around the world. That will increase as software gets better. There’s been a bit of a hold up under the monopoly system but there are beginning to be some breaks in that as well.

Imagine in Iran there’s a man named, we called him ‘Hota’. That’s his nickname. He’s in Toronto, but he’s from Iran. Several years ago he took some standard weblogs about software. And weblogs, for those who don’t know what they are, are these online journals done in reverse chronological order where the newest item is at the top and the top item from Iran from that small website would be his weblog. He basically took some weblogging software and said, “I’m going to show people how to do Persian blogs using this English language tool.” It started several years ago with one weblog and now it’s several hundred thousand Persian weblogs. This man has done an extraordinary achievement.

There are lots of political problems with Iranian weblogs but I want to just say that one dedicated individual has the power, surprisingly really, to do something that catches fire and when people want to express themselves, they will find a way and when they have something they can use to do it, they find a way more quickly.

This is Hota’s website.

Delegate from the floor
Thank you. My name’s Louise Richardson, political scientist from Harvard University.

I’m very struck by the consensus in the room and amongst the group and I must confess that any time I see large amount of consensus I tend to be sceptical. It seems to me that there are real dilemmas here… The reality is that seven years ago there were twelve terrorist websites, today there are over four thousand. The reality is that terrorists are using these websites to recruit, to raise money, to fund themselves, to spread hate speech, and, above all, to plan their attacks.

In large part, because of the war that the US has waged on terrorists these groups now cannot function without the Internet and it seems to me that you seem to be casting this dilemma in manichean terms, much as the terrorists do, much as the Bush administration does. We have on the one hand the option of those of us who believe in freedom and democracy, more Internet for everybody, the good guys, and, on the other hand, the bad guys who want censorship.

It seems to me that it’s really much more complicated than that and it seems to me that if you want your document to have an impact, you have to take on the fact that there are real dilemmas we face here.

How do those of us who believe in democracy, who believe in access to the Internet preserve that access, while preventing people bombing our civilians and using the Internet to do so? And to simply say that the only response is to spread interconnectivity, access to everybody, I think, is going to mean that your document is not going to be taken seriously.

Someone would like to respond.

It’s a complicated issue because there is certainly use being made of the Internet in all the ways you described. I probably would dispute your assertion that these groups cannot exist without the Internet. In fact, when you think about it, a far more critical technology for these groups is cell phones. What do we do? This is the issue. The attempt to cut off finance to these groups, the use of these sites for raising money, I think that everyone who’s attempted to analyse the flows of money has seen a rise in the friend-to-friend ’I tell you here, you make sure the money arrives there’. Those kinds of paper-based, non-technology-based systems are increasing in use. Why? Well because, though groups can also use the Internet to raise funds, they also provide a footprint, a traceable path, a tool for law enforcement that has never existed before. Imagine that the groups you’d most like to know something about are providing you with an easily accessible site on which they say things. That’s quite new and nice in a way, the conversations are surfacing.

We discussed this in considerable depth and which you can in the captures of our discussion and we went over the issues again and again about the use of the Internet to help terrorist groups organise raids and money. The general consensus was law enforcement and intelligence agencies are not using the capabilities made possible by the Internet in the counterintelligence sense. They’re just not using these tools. Not that I advocate that everyone here immediately become an intelligence agent, but the tools that people can bring to bear on those four thousand sites, or more, exist and are not being utilised.

On the balance our assertions about how wonderful all the Internet technology is, incorporates this other side of utilising the mechanisms of the Internet to follow precisely those groups that expose themselves on the Internet. To date we’re not doing a very good job of inside intelligence agencies. I was going to cite something which is a tool which until now has been unavailable to civilians but now is available, it’s a little embarrassing for Andrew McLaughlin but a small company started something that made it possible for anyone in this room to fly to the training camps in Afghanistan or to the Iranian nuclear reactor, or to the North Korean nuclear reactor, and how do I mean ‘fly’? Well everyone here should, with a PC, it doesn’t work on Mackintosh, go to or Google the website called Earthviewer, or possibly Keyholes as an alternative name.

All this is is about 40 terabytes of Earth imagery from aeroplanes and satellites, in the past available only to intelligence agencies, today available to a child to fly down to a street address… so if you want a year’s subscription to it you’ll pay $30 and that means that you can have a magic carpet that will float over Nairobi or over Madrid and you can see on the ground, in many cases, with 30 cm accuracy, what’s going on on the ground. Could a terrorist group use this? Absolutely. Could we use this? Absolutely. So this poses precisely the dilemma that you point to, so we argued about this and came to the conclusion that, in general, the access to that kind of information by us gives many eyes the power of, and many ways of seeing what you see on the screen, a new ability to make ourselves safer and that outweighs the capability of those who would like to make us less safe. Type an address and fly to it is perhaps the summary of this.

It changes your opinion of things and we can’t make it go away. In fact, I think in the next two weeks all of Africa[...] almost invisible lines of race and poverty make invisible its politics and, in Iran, the same thing happens. Make it visible and politics, from the bottom, democratic politics with a small ‘d’, democratic politics emerges so there’s power in this, and with anything powerful there are alternate uses. This is a very old debate, bit on balance, I take the position that it is a better thing to have informed and angry people than uninformed and angry people.

Delegate from the floor
My name’s Richard Barrett, I’m the leader of a United Nations team that deals with sanctions against Al Queda and the Taliban on behalf of the Security Council. I agree absolutely with all that’s been said about the positive aspects of the Internet, of course we all do, and indeed the importance of openness in the fight against terrorism. It’s vital and it provides an excellent way to spread the true teachings of Islam.

But I rather agree with the last speaker from the floor, but I’m not sure we can just leave it at that, saying “we’ll let openness defeat the dark forces of terrorism”. I’m sure that we’d all agree that if there was an easy way to deal with paedophiles who exploit the Internet, who abuse young children, we would do it, we would take that action. And I think terrorism is another obscenity that we really should be addressing and I understand all the difficulties and Mr Gage makes some very powerful points, but I wonder whether we shouldn’t actually be examining whether we can take some small steps to try and address some of the problems of terrorism on the Internet that we have. You’re right in what you say that intelligence services could certainly use more, I’m afraid terrorists are several steps ahead of them and are likely to remain there.

So, I wonder what the panel would say, whether you think that’s it’s reasonable for us in the international community to consider maybe, at least symbolically taking some steps, for example, looking at the list of the people who are subject to UN sanctions, like members of Al Queda and saying that they should be denied running websites, or people shouldn’t be able to run website on their behalf because we need to do something. I think it’s already been said, the US administration is determined to do something and I would have thought the industry wants to be up there working with those and I’m sure you probably are. But I think from the United Nations point of view, we have no easy answers, of course there are no easy answers and maybe the result will be to do nothing, but it’s certainly something that we’d like to address. Thank you.

Ethan Zuckerman
Thanks very much for the question and thanks very much for the challenge. One thing I would like to make clear, despite the fact that what you’re saying is a great deal of cyber optimism from the panel and a lot of the people here could be described as ‘cyber optimists’, we did spend a long time discussing what we see as extremely hard questions looking to find out what could practically be done to address a lot of the concerns that you brought forth. You used the word symbolic, in the concept of a symbolic action, and I think, unfortunately what we ended up concluding largely in technical discussions was that most of the gestures that you’re talking about would be in fact symbolic gestures.

One of the things that is extremely difficult, and we would probably argue impossible, to do on the Internet as currently designed, we would argue that in any future design that looked anything like the Internet that we have today is ensure that you can definitely identify a user. This is the fundamental problem with preventing any individual from starting up a website. We do not believe that there is any technical means to ensure that you can figure out exactly who is sitting in front of any computer at any given time. We ended up arguing that any serious symbolic effort to try to reduce that anonymity on the Internet would not prevent terrorists from taking advantage of that anonymity but would prevent people who have legitimate uses for anonymity, like human rights activists from having access to it.

So I just want to make clear, it’s an issue that we find profoundly challenging. I don’t think we have a good answer for it, except to say that we continue to wrestle with it and that our recommendation ultimately was to say that we were worried that a symbolic gesture might actually have a very serious negative impact for people for whom anonymity is very important.

Andrew McLaughlin
My challenge back is that I’ve heard nothing but the limpest, lamest ideas for what you would do to change the Internet along the directions that you point out. I understand what you say, it’s a very serious point and it’s one we took seriously… you can read the transcript of our discussion yesterday, I urge you to do that. At a technical level, Internet and packets of architecture that it’s built on makes it extremely difficult, indeed, impossible, to authenticate any given user sending any given communication at any given moment. We’ve been talking about two kinds of communication of terrorists. One is terrorist to terrorist, communication for coordination of attack, or planning or handling of money. The second is terrorist to world communication, the publication of one to many communication, to recruit, to spread hate, to advocate death and destruction.

Let’s take each one of these. On the first point, there are technologies like encryption, and there are, as Ethan pointed out, all kinds of different ways to get on the network so that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to block communications from specific humans. You can block them from one computer or one device when you know about it but there’s nothing to prevent that human taking up another device or stealing one from somebody else, buying a cell phone SIM card with cash and not giving identity. There are so many ways of getting on the network that you cannot prevent it.

The proper response there, we think is to use the Internet as a tool, in order words, to use the most advanced decryption and surveillance technologies that the intelligence agencies have available, and I would contest, by the way, the idea that the terrorists are going to stay five steps ahead of our intelligence agencies, quite the contrary. I think terrorists are crude, they’re clever, but they are not the most technically sophisticated people on the planet and they can not keep up with a sustained, dedicated effort by the assembled brains of the democracies of the world to do effective surveillance and monitoring of the network and tracing and audit of those communications.

Then turning to the publication, this is much easier. As long as some countries, like the US and others, that have a legal, constitutional commitment to freedom of expression, shutting down an individual website because it has a hateful message or comes from a particular source, is a game of Wackaball, you knock it here and it pops up there. It’s far better to combat that with more speech than the alternative which is to try to censor in the interests of keeping the hatred out away from those who might be influenced by it. It is of course troubling and upsetting that that’s going to happen but it is a cost of an open society.

John Perry Barlow
I agree with my colleagues here. It’s very difficult to censor anything on the Internet without censoring all of it in some means or another. But I’m sympathetic with the concerns that you state and deeply so.

On the other hand, one of the problems I have with this conference and with the dialogue regarding terrorism in general, is that we have reduced terrorists to a word, a thing, we have objectified them to such an extent that I’m grateful that there are places I can go to on the net and hear views expressed that I find loathsome and troubling, but nevertheless are being expressed by human beings, not terrorists. They are people, they have views that I object to, but at least when I am engaged in some kind of conscious awareness of what they’re saying and thinking, I feel like I’m part of the human dialogue. As soon as I objectify them, I’m given them the right to return the favour.

We are now coming to the end of our session but what I would emphasise is, both to Mr Barber and Mr Ogowa… we won’t take anymore comments, but I’d ask you to approach the panel for continuing the discussion here. We have the room for about ten or fifteen more minutes and, more importantly, I would ask everybody that has made a criticism, a constructive one, or unconstructive one, to continue the conversation, make an effort, make these comments public to a much wider audience than that able to attend here and we can continue this. In three months we will be posting back and surely taking into account many of the things that have been stated here.

I was asked by [...] The state, the democratic state is not the enemy of liberty. There’s a libertarian and neo-liberal tendency among enthusiasts for cyberspace who seem to think that government is the problem, the market is the solution and that’s a view they share with the Bush administration. In fact, democratic government, democratic regulation is how we assure access, competition and also oversight over misuses like terrorists and so on and the enmity shown to democratic government oversight and regulation, I think is a terrible mistake, it’s part of the assault on democratic governments that actually joins the forces that pretend that the market protects liberty and the government is the enemy of liberty whereas, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

I’m forced to just make a very quick response. If you think that people on this panel are opposed to law enforcement, including anti-trust law to recite one of your objections earlier, you’re wrong. We are actively promoting government intervention in cases where the Internet is becoming less and less free and I think it’s a mischaracterization to assume that this is a straight-ahead libertarian group of people because it isn’t.

Thank you very much for the active, interactive session and to all the panellists and the working group.

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