One outcome of last month’s Paris attacks and this month’s San Bernardino shootings is that political leaders and would-be presidents are talking about adding new restrictions to the internet. This is happening in multiple nations, including the United States, and across political parties. Are we seeing a major trend rising? If so, what does this mean for education?
We can begin with the most egregious advocate, America’s Donald Trump. To stop ISIS he’d like to, well, let’s let this Republican candidate speak for himself.
We’re losing a lot of people because of the internet, and we have to do something. We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people… that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some way. Somebody would say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.
I personally enjoy the phrase “Bill Gates and a lot of different people”, as a ham-fisted and semi-20th-century guess at whomever Trump thinks could help him with controlling those pesky interweb tubes.
This is not, however, a partisan issue, as leading Democrats issued statements along similar lines, albeit not so clumsily. President Obama, in his address to the American people about ISIS: “I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice. ” It’s not clear what that means, but can imply a variety of policies, such as restrictions on encryption, increased surveillance, or hate speech laws applied more extensively online.
A “a senior administration official…speaking on background” followed up the president by identifying social media as an area to contest.
In coming days, the White House will talk to companies in the tech sector about developing a “clearer understanding of when we believe social media is being used actively and operationally to promote terrorism,” said the official, speaking on background.
President Barack Obama sees the need for the sector to work with law enforcement when the use of social media “crosses the line” from expressing views “into active terrorist plotting,” the official said.
“That is a deeply concerning line that we believe has to be addressed. There are cases where we believe that individuals should not have access to social media for that purpose,” the official said.
Hillary Clinton, leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, anticipated these gentlemen last week, in a Washington speech:
In a reference to Silicon Valley’s reverence for disruptive technologies, Clinton said, “We need to put the great disrupters at work at disrupting ISIS,” an acronym for the militant group…
Hillary Clinton said Sunday that the Islamic State had become “the most effective recruiter in the world” and that the only solution was to engage U.S. technology companies in blocking or taking down militants’ websites, videos and encrypted communications.
Recall that Hillary Clinton has already expressed some support for forcing backdoors into encryption programs.
Apparently Trump quoted Clinton, as she, speaking days before him, went on to add: “You are going to hear all the familiar complaints: ‘Freedom of speech’ etc… we’ve got to shut off [ISIS’] means of communicating.” And then:
“We’re going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space. Just as we have to destroy [ISIS’s] would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space,” she said.
I never fail to get chills when a politician complains about free speech.
Remember, too, that these powers will be misused. Last week we learned that Wal-mart managed to get the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces to investigate not jihadis, but worker unionization leaders.
Elsewhere on the continent, the European Parliament voted to support a report (not a law, not yet) in favor of “criminal charges against online firms if they do not remove material from their websites that promote terrorism.” As with the US, there’s talk of government-business collaboration, since the report “comes ahead of the European Commission’s launch of a new partnership next week to target radicals online with the voluntary help of tech companies.” More,
It focuses on countering material online that could lead to radicalisation, but also includes measures to tackle extremist networks in prisons and freeze passports and financial assets of would-be terrorists…
The Turkish government has been expanding its efforts to control local news media, too, using terrorism as a leading justification.
Britain is ahead of both France and the US, having already implemented or pushed for a variety of odious measures, including hacking social media profiles to compromise reputations, waging something like a culture war against radicalized youth, and expanding surveillance even further. The UK has had units and policies to suss out, block, or control internet discussions for terrorism for some time. Plus they have a handy-dandy pamphlet for parents, helping them watch their kids for tell-tale signs of Islamification.
On Twitter Zack Whittaker sees this multinational trend as a second run of one of the 1990s’ low points, the (Bill) Clinton administration’s odious and ultimately doomed push to restrict new forms of cryptography.
“But hang on a minute,” my readers protest, “isn’t Bryan an education blogger? Why is he raving about surveillance, cryptography, and terrorism?” Because, my readers and soon-to-be-commentators, this is an education issue.
To some extent education thrives on the open internet. That’s how learners can find stuff and teachers, how faculty and other experts can share their work and meet other interested parties. Every clamp applied to the open internet blocks that activity. Worse, some of learning involves tinkering and exploring. We’ve already seen how the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty (supported by both Democratic candidates mentioned in this post and unopposed by Republicans, I remind you) can threaten users’ abilities to explore software and hardware. Additional restrictions implemented to supposedly ward off terrorists will chill that spirit of inquiry.
More: because this is a cross-party trend in the United States, the usual politics are trickier, or might not apply. Consider that the largest American teachers union endorsed Hillary Clinton for president; is her hostility to online communication and freedom a price those teachers are willing to pay for her victory? What happens when Americans, used to two-party polarization, find all of their candidates expressing versions of the same position?
Should we take an active position in opposition, mobilizing educators in public? Should we start teaching students about how to evade surveillance online, while it’s still more or less legal to do so? Should we rethink campus hardware and software strategies in light of this new trend? Or should educators stay silent, because we don’t understand the issues, or support a candidate for unrelated reasons?
I repeat that this new call for internet controls isn’t the position of a few, but a multinational, multiparty stance. That gives it more gravitas, even a sense of inevitability, heightened by each news story of disaster and a growing sense of panic. All the more reason to query and oppose it now, before it takes root and grows.
Or perhaps I’m wrong. Please push back. Am I misreading policies, positions, and/or technologies?
*I like Le Monde’s sarcasm: “Le reste tient de l’inventaire à la Prévert ou de la liste au Père Noël” (the rest comes from a Prévert’s “Inventory” or Santa Claus’ list”).