In the aftermath of the London Bridge attack, British Prime Minster Theresa May called for a clamp down on internet companies which she held responsible for providing a safe space for extremist propaganda. The call for control of the internet, the most accessible and democratic medium for exchange of ideas, raises free speech concerns. More so if it means that private players like Google and Yahoo are to be entrusted with the task of weeding out dangerous content. Having said that, amidst the spate of attacks, it is hard to deny how fabulously advantageous technology has been for the propagators of hate and terror.
Attackers like those in London recently can no longer be dismissed as lone wolves. Indeed, the attacks are scattered, the methods crude and amateur. But the impact is deadly and the pattern unmistakable. This is a diabolical but brilliantly executed global war remote-controlled by the Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups. Brilliant, because it requires no investment other than ideological brainwashing carried out at virtually no cost on the internet. The sites of attack are scattered across the world and the enemy is unidentifiable till he strikes — he does not show up in army fatigues, nor does he necessarily carry a gun. What appear to be random attacks are strung together by a deadly cocktail of indoctrination of vulnerable young men on the internet coupled with their own baggage of cultural, social or economic alienation in the societies they inhabit.
How does the world respond to this unconventional war? No amount of bombing can flatten out the nurseries of terror in the virtual world. The foot soldiers are not chaps you can “smoke out of their holes” as George W. Bush swore he would do when he declared the war on terror after 9/11. Technology has done away with the need for terror training camps. That is a great triumph for terror because it requires no centralised army, no physical or military training, no distribution of arms or explosives. The internet provides the means to expand the catchment for radicalisation and recruitment. It gives the cause a cohesiveness that transcends nationality, race and territory.
Recently, Zakir Musa, an al Qaeda operative from Kashmir, made a rousing rant on YouTube taunting Indian Muslims for being a spineless lot that had failed their brethren. Musa used social media to exhort Kashmiri youth to pelt stones, not for Kashmir, but in the name of religion. The role of the internet in providing easy avenues for radicalisation is undeniable. Yet, can the internet be regulated without chilling free speech?
While internet companies must cooperate in the fight against international terror, we need to recognise that internet service providers are not publishers but only platforms. They cannot vet the mountains of content that are posted every day. Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 acknowledges the limited role that internet intermediaries can play in filtering the flow of information by conferring on them immunity from liability with respect to third party information. In the landmark case on internet freedom, Shreya Singhal v Union of India, the Supreme Court held that an intermediary (like Google) becomes liable only if it violates a court order directing it to take down offensive material.
It would be unwise to entrust corporations like Google or Yahoo with the task of censoring potentially dangerous content as that amounts to the privatisation of censorship. Private players are not equipped to draw the fine and often fuzzy line between lawful speech and inciteful speech. They are likely to remove more material than they ought to, rather than risk liability. The result could be excessive censorship. Terrorism is a pressing global concern and it is time for the democratic world to come together to draw up a global norm, to bring about a meta-constitution to contain “terror” speech that derives sustenance from the internet. We need global cooperation through international treaties that provide for an international monitoring agency that will uphold free speech on the internet while weeding out terror propaganda.