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Reader's Digest – 9 April 2020

Our weekly review of articles on terrorist and violent extremist use of the internet, counterterrorism, digital rights, and tech policy.

Islamist terrorism

West Africa is increasingly vulnerable to terrorist groups: In this article, James Black assesses the state of the terrorist threat in West Africa following the US military retreat from the region. Black provides an analysis of the security and socio-political factors – including limited border security forces, widespread poverty, disputes around the management of local resources, and ethnic tensions – that risk contributing to the increase of terrorism in the region. To help fight this trend, Blake calls for West Africa to become “a test case for innovative and collective preventive diplomacy”, through improved collaboration and intelligence sharing between policymakers in the region, strengthened governance, and increased international support through humanitarian aid and development assistance. (Blake, Foreign Policy, 04.04.2020)

-Far-right violent extremism and terrorism

The U.S government is finally getting tough on white nationalist terrorism: On Monday, the US government announced the designation of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) – an ultranationalist white supremacy movement – as a terrorist group. This “unprecedented” move, according to US State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales, not only sends a message to far-right violent extremists but also bears important intelligence and legal implications, as the US will now be able to rely on international intelligence sharing and to charge suspected RIM members with material support for a terrorist group. Given that far-right violent extremist groups often exist in a legal grey area due to the lack of international designations of such groups as terrorist entities, this move will facilitate private companies’ – including the tech sector – ability to adjudicate on whether to take action on such groups’ presence on their platforms under their counterterrorism mechanisms. (Byman, Foreign Policy, 06.04.2020)

– White supremacist terror: modernizing our approach to today’s threat: In this joint Program on Extremism at George Washington University and the Anti-Defamation League policy paper, researchers assess the US’ current resources to address the threat posed by far-right violent extremism and terrorism. Through a focus on two US-based far-right violent extremist groups, Atomwaffen Division and The Base, and recent arrests in the country, this paper provides an analysis of the state of the threat in the US, as well as law enforcement efforts to counter and disrupt the influence of far-right violent extremism. This policy paper concludes with a set of seven policy recommendations outlining legal and policy changes, including the possibility to designate foreign violent extremist groups as foreign terrorist organisations by the State Department; redefining the statutes outlining terrorist acts to cover the threat of domestic terrorism; and improving efforts in preventing engagement with extremism, especially by acknowledging the importance of online communities in violent extremism and recognising the role of tech platforms in prevention efforts. (Lewis, Hughes, Segal, Greer, GW Program on Extremism & ADL, April 2020)

– The virus of hate: far-right terrorism in cyberspace: In this article, Gabriel Weimann and Natalie Masri dwells on the online presence of far-right terrorists and violent extremists. The authors underline the role that disinformation has historically played in their violent extremist far-right’s propaganda strategy, as well as how they have taken advantage of the rise of online new media over the last three decades. Weimann and Masri then further analyse the attraction of online platforms for far-right violent extremists, developing on their presence on social media through the case studies of the use of Youtube, Facebook, Telegram, and of the Dark Net by violent extremists. They conclude by exemplifying violent extremists' use of online platforms with a study of how far-right violent extremists have been discussing the current Covid-19 crisis, capitalising on the pandemic to spread their narratives and promote their agenda. (Wiemann & Masri, ICT, 05.04.2020)


Understanding the human rights risks associated with internet referral units: With the draft EU regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online still being negotiated amongst EU institutions, concerns have been raised regarding potential negative implications for the right to privacy, freedom of speech, and smaller tech platforms’ capacity to abide by this new regulation. In this article, Jason Pielemeier and Chris Sheehy focus on article 5 of the proposed EU legislation, that would codify and expand Internet Referral Units (IRUs). Pielemeier and Sheehy review the four first IRUs mechanisms set up in the EU – in the UK, France, Netherlands, and at the EU level through Europol – against the mains concerns for privacy and freedom of expression raised with regard to these mechanisms: circumventing legal procedures, transparency and accountability, access to remedy, and the risk of inadvertently compelling companies to change their terms and conditions. (Pielemeier and Sheehy, VoxPol, 26.03.2020)

Tech policy

– WhatsApp to impose new limit on forwarding to fight fake news: Having already introduced limitations on its forwarding feature, WhatsApp is now implementing further limitations on forwarded messages by reducing the possibility of forwarding a frequently forwarded message to only one chat at a time. The measure is an attempt by the messaging app to limit the spread of dis/misinformation on its platform, and follows the increase of dis/misinformation messages about the Covid-19 crisis being shared through the app. (The Guardian, 07.06.2020)

– Zoom heeds Access Now’s call for transparency reporting: Last month, Access Now called on Zoom to increase its transparency on privacy and security, and especially for the company to publish a transparency report on how it responds to user information requests by third parties. This call came in light of drastically increased use of the platform during the Covid-19 crisis. Responding positively to this call, Zoom has announced that it was preparing a transparency report as part of a series of measures to improve its transparency and accountability. (Access Now, 02.04.2020)

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Background to Tech Against Terrorism

Tech Against Terrorism is an initiative launched by the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (UN CTED) in April 2017. We support the global technology sector in responding to terrorist use of the internet whilst respecting human rights, and we work to promote public-private partnerships to mitigate this threat. Our research shows that terrorist groups - both jihadist and far-right terrorists - consistently exploit smaller tech platforms when disseminating propaganda. At Tech Against Terrorism, our mission is to support smaller tech companies in tackling this threat whilst respecting human rights and to provide companies with practical tools to facilitate this process. As a public-private partnership, the initiative has been supported by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and the governments of Spain, Switzerland, the Republic of Korea, and Canada.

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