After voicing our concerns back in October about the shutting down of a website registered on the Icelandic domain .is without going through the courts, we were approached for comments by Voice of America. The website in question hosted ISIS/ISL material. Below are the questions we were asked and our answers to them, as only a fraction was used by VOA in their report.
VOA: Iceland has been a leader in protecting free expression online. The government, however, has recently expressed distress about “.is” sites linked to the self-styled Islamic State group, shutting down some domains. How does your group see these actions?
IMMI: As soon as it was known, the hosting company shut down the site. Then the owners of the website moved hosting territory but the site was still registered within the .is domain. The company in charge of domain registry – ISNIC, which has a monopoly on .is registrations – initially maintained there was nothing they could do and the correct channels for the case was through the courts. However, bulking under both pressure and fear of being prosecuted for aiding the group behind the website or facilitating its message they blocked the registration. Which raises the question of protection for intermediaries. This is alarming. For one thing, this is the first time ISNIC, on its own accord, has closed down a registration and now we have a precedent. The correct channels were indeed the courts, but given that the Prime Minister had voiced his deep disappointment that the country domain had been used by this group for their propaganda and that “this had absolutely nothing to do with freedom of speech or expression” goes to show the mounting political pressure ISNIC were under. Nonetheless, we believe it was the wrong action to take. There are various arguments for not taking down the site: a) go through the courts b) censorship limits our ability to formulate opinions properly, do research etc.; c) the same could hold for other websites promoting rhetoric without critique to invade Iraq.
VOA: In the US, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but courts have ruled that there are limits in extreme examples – you can’t publicly call for the assassination of the President, for instance. Should there be limits on “extreme speech” online, and if so, who or what would be best to draw those lines?
IMMI: Public officials and narrators within the popular media in the US, Canada and elsewhere called for the assassination of both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Those who made those calls are protected by freedom of expression and speech. One could argue, and indeed many do argue, that both Assange and Snowden are to thank for informing the global public about incredibly important information that has enormous relevance for the global community. And yet, various manipulators of information have called for their assassination. If that is permissible, surely other similar views directed at other individuals should also be protected by freedom of speech and expression. It does not mean an individual guided by reason would ever condone such speech and expression. Either all such calls should be viewed as – and charged with – excitement to murder or none of them. Of course, it becomes even more serious when heads of states and public officials abuse their platform to make such calls, and in that way, it is no different to the fatwa against Rushdie handed out by Khomeini.
VOA: In practice, blocking websites and social media accounts has limited effectiveness, given the structure of the web. Proponents of censorship efforts say it’s to protect citizens. In your view, what is the result of letting anyone say or post anything they want online?
IMMI: The nature of not censoring the web implies that we, as individuals and societies, make up our own minds about things. That we are responsible for our opinions, expression and speech. It is very difficult to occasionally allow censorship but most times not. For the most part it is an either or phenomena. The phrasing “for the most part” is due to child pornography, which is censored and is much easier to define than, say, extremism or terrorism. It also does not require us to view it with regards to the global context and our history, unlike the other things labelled extremism and other phenomena. Various things can be labelled extreme, also things currently not labelled extreme. What about the Iraq war? Drone attacks? The history of interventionism? It’s not that ISIS isn’t extremist, it definitely is, but that applies to other things too. The decapitations have of course brought outrage and disgust, they are horrendous acts. And so are the decapitations carried out by the Saudi Arabian monarchy – so far 59 this year.
VOA: Finally, a group of major tech firms (Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter) have been meeting with EU officials on ways to combat extremists online. Are there effective ways for companies, or individuals, to self-police, and what would your counsel to these firms be regarding their efforts?
IMMI: It’s a slippery slope when various groups are permitted to conduct censorship. That process, to stand any chance of credibility and trust – if that is ever attainable – needs to be transparent. Steps need to be taken to ensure that those who are censored have a reasonable recourse to appeal decisions made against them. This is one of the reasons why intermediary protections are important. If intermediaries are legally responsible for content stored on or travelling through their networks, then they will want to err on the side of safety with regard to that content, which may lead to extralegal censorship and associated chilling effects.