4 min read

Reader's Digest – 30 October 2020

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

Top Stories

  • The European Parliament has backed three reports on Tuesday evening, which seek to establish the Parliament’s position on the EU Commission’s upcoming Digital Services Act (DSA). Read more on this here.

  • On Wednesday, the US Congress held a hearing on Section 230 reform and included discussions with the CEO’s of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. For a summary of the hearing, see Casey Newton’s article. We discuss the tech companies’ diverging positions on the issue in an article summary below.
  • France has had several individual attacks in recent days, some of which have been confirmed to be terrorist related. These attacks have taken place in the context of the continuously escalating controversy in France surrounding the publication of several cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. To read more on this, see here and here.

  • The Department of Justice has announced that the US seized two websites that were unlawfully utilized by Kata’ib Hizballah, a Specially Designated National and Foreign Terrorist Organization.

  • On Thursday, the FBI arrested the self-proclaimed leader of the Base, a violent, Neo-Nazi group, during a pair of raids across Michigan.

Tech policy

  • How the EU Plans to Rewrite the Rules for the Internet: This article discusses the EU’s Digital Services Act, assesses its implications, and concludes with insights into next steps of the legislative process. In doing so, it outlines the DSA and its far-reaching implications for digital services. It outlines the progress of the DSA, which had recently undergone a public consultation process, and a first draft of the new law is expected to be published on 2 December. The European Parliament, which has already published its own recommendations, will then have to sign off the law, as will EU Member States. This process, according to authors Blankertz and Jaursch, can last years. The authors stress that during this legislative process, it will be “important for the public to watch the DSA taking form in order to make sure the rules are well-balanced and build on the best available arguments and expertise”, to ensure that the rules serve the public interest rather than solely corporate or governmental interests. Blankertz and Jaursch recommend that the rules should aim at “mitigating online harms from bad incentives and market concentration”, while abstaining from imposing “supposedly clear-cut answers to complicated questions.” (Blankertz and Jaursch, Brookings, 21.10.20).

  • To see our blog post on the EU’s online regulation, check out the EU edition of the Online Regulation Series from last week here.

  • How Facebook, Google, Twitter Diverge in Defense of Tech’s Liability Shield: This piece discusses the divergent opinions of Facebook, Twitter, and Google CEOs on what the US Congress should do about Section 230. Authors Christopher Stern, Nick Bastone, and Alex Heath contextualise the analysis with a brief history of the companies’ cooperation and divergence on previous major tech policy issues, such as on the sex trafficking modification of Section 230. In assessing how the companies line up in regard to Section 230, they find that Facebook is more open to changes in Section 230 and willing to “update the law to deal with the problems we face today”. They note that this is probably because Facebook is large enough to maintain resources to “defend itself from hundreds of lawsuits that could result from a weakening of the law”. On the other hand, Google has been outspoken in its support of Section 230, and thus its CEO, Sundar Pichai, has urged the Committee “to be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 240 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers”. Finally, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has urged Congress to act with restraint, warning that “regulations can further entrench companies that have large market shares and can easily scale up additional resources to comply”. In recognising this divergence, the authors stress that the lack of a unified front could weaken the tech companies’ ability to parry both political parties’ attacks, which have intensified leading up to the US presidential election. (Stern, Bastone and Heath, The Information, 27.10.20)

Far-right violent extremism and terrorism

  • Hindutva Vigilantism:Online Hate,Offline Harms:This article by Nazneen Mohsina focusses on the spread of ethnonationalism in India, and how the online propagation of conspiracy theories and hate speech increasingly contribute offline violence. Mohsina explains how “performance terrorism”, which she describes as videos of violence committed by various ethnonationalist groups, help perpetrators gain legitimacy and normalise violence against minorities. In addition, she argues that COVID-19-related conspiracy theories also help in the spread of Islamophobia, as Muslims are portrayed to be the main carriers of the virus. Mohsina highlights that these conspiracy theories are spreading quickly in part due to the low levels of media literacy in India, undermining the pluralism that once characterised the country and replacing it with ethno-religious majoritarianism. She also argues that without a clear legal framework on hate speech, disinformation and hate crimes, this goes unchallenged. She concludes that, in light of a lack of governmental efforts to regulate and criminalise hate speech against minorities, social media companies’ role in countering this form of online speech is even more important. (Mohsina, GNET, 22.10.20)

Islamist terrorism

  • IntelBrief: One Year after Killing of Baghdadi, What is the State of the Islamic State: In this article, the Soufan Center assesses the current state of Islamic State (IS), a year after the death of its former leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The article highlights how the physical ‘caliphate’ might have been destroyed in Iraq and Syria, but that core IS members in the region remain, with known connections to middlemen on the ground connecting them to their network in Europe and Asia. They also signify that IS still has significant funds to carry out their operations in the region, with the group’s most recent media dissemination calling for attacks. The Soufan Center also emphasises that IS continues to focus on branching out their caliphate to other geographical regions, particularly gaining ground in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan. In terms of future operations, the article anticipates that with the withdrawal of US troops in the region, IS will try and fill the subsequent power vacuums. Finally, the Soufan Center concludes that even with the ‘caliphate’ having been largely defeated, IS is likely to continue attacking the West and propagate its central message that IS is at war with the West. (Soufan Center, 26.10.20)

For any questions, please get in touch via: