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@fredcole’s Daily Shot Monday morning struck a chord with me. He notes that, in the wake of another sickening and horrific terrorist attack in the UK over the weekend, Prime Minister Theresa May is quoted as saying “we need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning. And we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.” Other British leaders are understandably, but I believe wrong-headedly, calling for the same.
Let me start by saying that I yield to no one in wishing the atrocities being perpetrated across the globe by violent, fanatical islamists would stop. My own first reaction to this latest assault was to wonder if perhaps loosening our western scruples about cruel and unusual punishment in cases of terrorism might be the best move. We are, after all, dealing with barbarians, and barbarians who don’t fear death, so perhaps treating them barbarically is what is needed to deter them. If a couple of them publicly got the William Wallace treatment in Trafalgar Square, maybe it would cause the next monster to think twice about the cost he was going to pay for his 72 virgins.
I don’t know, but this post isn’t about advocating torture as a punitive measure, however much merit there might be to the idea. It’s about free speech, and the openness of the internet. And there I think Theresa May and her government are groping (again, however understandably) in the wrong direction.
Simply put, “regulating the internet” is just another form of prohibition and like all forms of prohibition, it will impact only the law abiding. I am torn because I am so deeply sympathetic to the instinct to grope for a solution, and I know full well that the internet is both a tool of direct communication planning for terrorists, and a medium of propaganda that contributes to the recruitment of terrorists. So I fully understand the instinct of a besieged head of state to want to interrupt the communications involved somehow.
But the best decisions are usually not ones made under emotional duress, and if we step back and consider the history of censorship specifically and of prohibitions generally, I think we have to conclude that this proposal is pretty much all cost and no benefit.
Any international framework is inevitably going to have to get lost in the weeds of defining what can and can’t be said, and any ultimate agreement will inevitably be both over and under inclusive. That’s the nature of such regimes. It’s unavoidable, and it will therefore inevitably wind up burdening non-terrorist communications as a billion private parties take whatever steps they wind up having to take to comply.
Worse though, it won’t work. At some level we all know that. Governments have tried prohibiting any and everything over the course of history and despite their best efforts, water keeps running downhill. If there’s a demand for it, there will be a supply. They can’t even prohibit tangible goods, like illicit drugs, with any effectiveness. What chance do they have of prohibiting an intangible like terrorist communications? Do we expect Syria, or Iran to sign up for this new agreement and work hard to implement it? Do we really think that if we whack-a-mole in one part of the internet it won’t move to another? Even totalitarian states, operating in a world of much more costly communication technology, couldn’t really stop resistance movements from communicating.
In the end, bad people who don’t care about our silly laws will find ways around them, while good people who do care about them will spend time and money and aggravation complying with them. For both good and ill, we live in a world of instantaneous, costless communication. No one will be better off because we bury our heads in the sand and pretend we can change that.
But don’t despair entirely. I’m certainly not suggesting that we stop enforcing conspiracy laws. That’s already illegal in the US, and lacking a First Amendment, the prohibitions appear to be much broader in the UK. I assume that “allied democratic governments” across the globe have instituted similar laws. These are the laws that permit law enforcement to raid Ahmed’s apartment in Jersey City and clear out his bomb making material and haul him away for prosecution before he blows somebody up.
We need these laws. I have no doubt they’ve saved many lives. But we already have them. And terrorists use electronic communications to plot their murderous insanity despite the fact that they can already be arrested and prosecuted for doing so. So no, Theresa, while I’m very, very sorry for your loss, we do not need more regulation of cyberspace in response to it. It will not help stop those you seek to stop, and it will only harm the rest of us.