On January 18, a group of delegates from European countries will meet in Madrid to talk about how to make the Internet less terrorist-friendly. The meeting is the second official workshop of a project called Clean IT, led by Holland's Ministry of Security And Justice and funded (at least in part) by the European Union's Prevention of and Fight against Crime program.
What’s interesting about Clean IT is its emphasis on voluntary participation. It does not seek to enact any laws. The idea is to build an international coalition of governments and companies that are concerned about the ways that the Internet can abet “terrorism and extremism.” Users, too, will be enlisted, encouraged to flag troubling content and report it to participating ISPs and/or law enforcement agencies.
The whole thing seems so generic, uncontroversial, and benign that you have to dig into the organization’s downloadable "draft documents," in which its objectives are spelled out in more detail, to find the troubling parts.
Here’s a direct quote of some interest, from page 2:
The CleanIT project aims to limit the use of the internet for terrorist and extremist purposes:
1. for propaganda, recruitment, incitement, financing and acquiring knowledge and other kinds of support.
2. by all kinds of terrorists and extremist organizations and individuals. Including (alphabetical) animal rights, left-wing, racist, religious, right-wing, separatist and all other terrorist and extremist organizations and individuals.
Animal rights?! Wait a second. Is Clean IT planning to prevent PETA from using the Web as a platform for spreading veganism?
The document repeatedly uses the phrase "terrorist and extremist." It’s easy to read this as “terrorists and terrorist sympathizers,” or some such. But “extremist” here appears to be code for anti-establishment sentiment of any sort. Notice the use of “right-wing” and “left-wing.” All the bases are covered. If you hold a strong opinion on any subject, you’re fair game.
Among the "partial solutions" offered for dealing with such miscreants are those listed in the following direct excerpts (boldface added):
Flagging. ISPs could offer users easy to use flagging systems as much as possible. LEAs [Law Enforcement Agencies] of all countries should actively flag and encourage the use of flagging among end users as much as possible as a way of notification to the ISP that they are hosting content which might be illegal or unwanted.
Notice and take down. Clear and fast procedures by ISPs for notifications by users, NGO’s or LEAs pointing at possibly unwanted or illegal activity on the internet by terrorists and extremists.
So we’re talking about an international coalition of governments, law enforcement agencies, ISPs, and concerned citizens, set to expeditiously purge troublemakers of any sort from the online world.
It’s important to recognize what’s really happening here. The definition of “extremist” is being kept loose on purpose, so that it can be loosely applied. This is not an anti-terrorist network -- it is a network of political and corporate control in the guise of a benevolent do-gooder organization.
The malice here is being masked in two ways. First, the solutions proposed are non-binding; Clean IT has no authority and claims to have none. Second, the organization emphasizes how open it is to outside feedback. Anyone can read the latest drafts of its charter, and it's eager to engage in public dialogue with concerned citizens.
But in practice, Clean IT will lay the groundwork for at least three undesirable scenarios: 1) users around the world being encouraged to spy on and report each other (and their ISPs); 2) ISPs encouraged to spy on and report their users, including organizations whose Websites they host; and 3) governments encouraged to collect the information gleaned from 1) and 2), and share it with the international cabal of (if you will) anti-extremists.
And Americans, let’s not kid ourselves; Clean IT will eventually intersect with SOPA and/or PIPA. We’ll be asked to flag others, we may be flagged ourselves, and eventually the DHS will be part of this network.
This is the consolidation of power based on fear that author Naomi Klein calls "the shock doctrine."
As responsible citizens of the Net, let’s not participate. Flag nothing. Or, better yet: Flag everything.
— Michael Bennett Cohn has a range of creative, business, and technical experience in online publishing. He is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/miconian.