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We must protect free speech online.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, The French National Assembly quickly adopted new legislation under its state of emergency to further the Minister of the Interior’s powers to block any website “promoting terrorism or inciting terrorist acts”, without the prerequisite 24-hour delay. This legislation also includes “powers to carry out searches of seized devices and to block websites”. U.S. and European officials are also calling for augmented government surveillance powers. Senator Joe Barton (R-Texas) in particular has suggested that the Federal Communications Commission attempt to shut down the parts of the Internet that are being used by the Islamic State.
Our instinctive reaction to the horror that we witnessed in November is to slap a band-aid solution over the festering wound of terrorism out of our fear that we will be again forced to witness a similar atrocity. Yet it would be another transgression against humanity to listen to the fear and passively relinquish our rights to free speech and access to information online, in a vain attempt to censor terrorists.
We need to tackle problems rather than blocking them from the Internet. France’s anti-terrorism law allows websites to be blocked if they “condone terrorism.” Terrorism is a slippery idea, and this vague definition has elicited censure from the Human Rights Watch. “Harmless” information and ideas versus those that contain the malicious intent of terrorism are inextricable from each other. It would be especially undesirable for a nation’s citizens to have their government make that distinction. The proposition reeks of Big Brother, where online ideas, news, or information that undermines the government’s power can be hidden from the eyes of the public under the excuse of “terrorism”.
Rather than authorizing government censorship, where the public is barred from accessing certain information, and the public has never been aware of the existence of such information in the first place, we should allow the speech to be published online. Then we may condemn them for it if it is illegal. The implications of permitting the government to have power over what the public never even knew existed are chilling. We would also hinder protected free speech. It is unnecessary to tempt a repeat of the McCarthy Era.
If the constituents of the voting population are unaware of current terrorist activities and ideologies, they are also rendered unable to take personal action against terrorism- whether they are voting for representatives that have devised policies to counteract foreign and domestic terrorism, or taking journalistic action themselves. In any case, we are ultimately better off knowing what is out there. It is a more desirable alternative to building a brick shelter all around us so that we can block the entry of terrorist ideas, than being surprised when the shelter is torn down by an attack that we weren’t able to see assembling outside.
While we may not have a definite solution to prevent terrorism, I know that we will not find it in Internet censorship.