Last weekend, following attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that left many dead, President Obama addressed the nation to condemn those terrible acts and reassure Americans that the government has a plan to fight terror. As is becoming a common refrain in political circles, technology was fingered as a culprit in the attacks.
Obama contended first that the local terrorist threat can be blamed on the internet. "[A]s the Internet erases the distance between countries, we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers," he said, before suggesting that the solution to terrorism involves "urg[ing] high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice."
During a press briefing the next day, the White House secretary clarified that while the president "believes in the importance of strong encryption," we "don't want terrorists to have a safe haven in cyberspace."
His thoughts on the internet as a mind-poisoner and criminal safehaven were echoed less poetically by two of the leading candidates to take his place in the White House. This week, Donald Trump said "we're losing a lot of people because of the internet" and suggested that we "go see [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates" about "closing up the Internet" to stop terrorist recruitment, while Hillary Clinton said we need to "deny [would-be terrorists] online space" and "shut off their means of communicating."
To paint the internet with such a broad brush is laughable, even when talking about it for such tragic reasons. Yes, social media has been used as a means of recruitment by ISIS, but it's also deprogrammed members of hate groups, as recently detailed in Adrian Chen's powerful New Yorker piece. In it, he tells the story of Megan-Phelps Roper who left the Westboro Baptist Church after meeting people who challenged her views via Twitter and Words With Friends. Not only is isolating extreme groups or removing them from the internet entirely impossible, it's not clear it would be an effective strategy for disempowering them. The "would-be terrorist" who is banned from the internet—however that infeasible act is accomplished—may well become an actual terrorist because he is cut off from seeing how complex the world actually is.
As for the contention that technology has helped terrorists escape justice, while encryption can make it harder for law enforcement to get evidence it wants, that doesn't seem to match the facts in these recent cases. The married attackers behind the Bernardino shootings do not appear to have used encryption for their communication, though they did destroy their cellphones, which authorities say had some built-in encryption, which most modern phones have. The only significant role the internet seems to have played for them was bringing them together; they reportedly met on an online dating site. (Hopefully Trump doesn't call for Match, OkCupid and Tinder to be "closed up" anytime soon.)
As for the Paris attackers, their plot was hatched "in plain sight," using unencrypted phones, hotel booking sites, and car rental agencies—all services that, again, I hope are not condemned by lawmakers. Their use of the internet is more likely to help lead investigators to others connected to the attacks than it will help hide them from justice. If people with violent intentions were truly pushed completely off the internet and off the grid, how would we find them or stop them?
Technology and the internet are being invoked in fearful terms because it is easier to point the finger there than unpack the multifold and complicated reasons behind these acts—the growth of hateful ideologies, racial and ethnic tensions, the ease of buying semi-automatic weapons, the long-term effects of an ongoing war waged by drones, and twisted minds that embrace violence.
When we decide to take the easy way out and paint technology in black and white terms, it can lead to insane outcomes, such as requests for "golden keys"—backdoors to circumvent encryption that would leave all of our information more vulnerable to hackers. Law enforcement in France proposed banning privacy tool Tor and, during states of emergency, shared and public Wi-fi. That would mean, during a time of fear, it would be even harder for people to communicate with loved ones. Thankfully, France's prime minister Manuel Valls called this what it was: a terrible plan.
Like the U.S., France has recent domestic attacks fresh in its mind, but Valls speaks more measuredly about technology than Obama, Trump and Clinton.
Translated from TF1:
"Internet is a freedom, an extraordinary way to communicate with people, that's a plus for the economy," said Manuel Valls, admitting it was "also a way for terrorists to communicate and spread their totalitarian ideology."
It does both. It spreads intellectual and economic freedom. It spreads hate. It will not be selectively stopped. Let's stop pretending like that's possible.
"Authoritarian governments tell their citizens that censorship is necessary for stability. It’s our responsibility to demonstrate that stability and free expression go hand in hand," wrote Google chairman Eric Schmidt in a recent New York Times op-ed. "Ever since there’s been fire, there’s been arson."
To enjoy the wonders that come from global communication, we have to put up with some of the terrible aspects too.