The United Nations General Assembly resolution adopted in July 2016 highlights the need to counter extremist narratives online. In the recent past, extremist content, usually content aiding terrorist activity has become a global concern. This post examines the methods adopted by state authorities and private entities to counter such online extremism.
The response to growing use of the Internet to spread messages of terror and hate has been an increase in the censorship of online content. In a reply to the Lok Sabha on the use of social media to spread terrorism, the government acknowledged that the ‘potential for spread of terror through social media was higher than ever.’ The government highlighted in its reply that it restricts the spread of terrorism on social media by taking prompt action to block content and by regularly monitoring social media sites with the help of security / Intelligence agencies. Additionally, it highlighted that intermediaries were prohibited from hosting objectionable or unlawful content as per the intermediary guidelines.
Blocking access to websites/URLs has been used frequently by the government to suppress extremist narratives online. In December 2014, Internet Service Providers were directed to block 32 websites which included file-sharing websites like ‘Vimeo’, ‘Dailymotion’, web-hosting services like ‘Weebly’ and software code repositories like ‘Github’ and ‘Sourceforge’. Reportedly, the block was based on an advisory issued by the Anti-terrorism squad (ATS) that the sites were hosting anti-India content relating to ISIS. Subsequently, some of these websites were unblocked, after they signed an undertaking stating that they would not allow such propaganda information to be hosted and will work with the Government to remove such content. Further, in January 2016, the chief of ATS disclosed that 94 websites linked to the ISIS had been blocked in 2015 as well. In February 2016, the Government blocked ‘Jihadology.net’, an online academic repository of Jihadist primary source material, their analysis and translations of documents. The website continues to remain blocked. The blocking of websites that host legitimate content like ‘Jihadology.com’ or ‘Vimeo’ indicates that these blocking orders are rarely executed in a targeted manner, and often end up being over-broad.
Public access to websites is blocked under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the rules framed under it. Blocking of websites takes place when ‘nodal officers’ appointed by government agencies send in requests for blocking of access to information or in case of court ordered block. These requests are reviewed by a committee and a ‘designated officer’ who chairs the committee issues approved orders of blocking of access to the service providers. This procedure was upheld by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v Union of India. The Court also held that the procedure to block websites required written reasons for blocking to be stated in the order issued by the designated officer, as well as the right to a pre-decisional hearing. However, these safeguards are seldom followed. Further, the blocking process continues to be shrouded in secrecy. The blocking rules require strict confidentiality to be maintained regarding any request or complaint received and any action taken by the government to subsequently block websites. This lack of transparency, absent or insufficient reasons and over-broad orders pose a continuous threat to the freedom of expression.
However, the state response has not been limited to censorship. It was reported that the ATS, Maharashtra would soon be launching its own website to propagate a counter-narrative. Further, the ATS chief disclosed that the police would also attempt to de-radicalise the youth. Earlier in February 2015, the Maharashtra ATS also began an intervention programme in educational institutions to initiate dialogue with the youth and prevent radicalisation. In October 2016, it was reported that due to a growing concern about radicalisation of youth by terrorist outfits like ISIS, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) appointed an advisor on cyber and social media. The adviser will work with MHA to develop strategies to track and counter radicalisation on social media.
The Indian Government is not alone in its concerns about online extremism. CCG has traced the global response and alternate regulatory methods adopted by private parties here. In India, private corporations like Facebook have also responded to online extremism.
Since July 2016, India has witnessed wide-spread censorship in Kashmir ranging from suppression of newspapers to Internet shutdowns. This is in response to the ongoing protests against the death of Burhan Wani, commander of Hizbul Mujahideen. The censorship ranges from suppression of newspapers to Internet shutdowns. Amidst this, Facebook has also blocked accounts and taken down content regarding Kashmir from across the globe for violation of its ‘community standards’ that prohibit content that praises or supports terrorists. For instance, Tomoghna Halder, a student from the University of California, has been repeatedly blocked from posting when he uploaded pictures of graffiti on Kashmir. Similarly, a video, posted by a local daily, featuring separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani’s arrest was removed and a Kashmir based satire page ‘Jajeer Talkies’ was also blocked. In another instance of private censorship, Facebook disabled the account of activist and lecturer Huma Dar for her pro-Burhan posts. It is clear that in the wake of the conflict in Kashmir, Facebook has resorted to privatized censorship to curb what it deems as ‘extremist’ reactions.
Private censorship of what is categorised as ‘extremist’ content is not unique to Facebook. Since February 2016, Twitter has suspended 235,000 accounts globally for violation of their policies that prohibit promotion of terrorism. Reports also indicate that YouTube and Facebook will use automation to silently block extremist videos. This form of private censorship raises a host of concerns. The chilling effect on speech and over-blocking of content are foremost among these. However, the determination of which content ‘praises or supports terrorists’ by Facebook and other intermediaries, raises larger concerns. It permits Facebook to clampdown on alternate voices, as is evident from instances related to the Kashmir conflict. Consequently, by the exercise of this power, Facebook – and other intermediaries- acquire the ability to influence the online narrative on these issues. This poses a severe threat to freedom of speech and expression.
The response of the Indian State to online extremism has been censorship of content. This has also been accompanied by censorship of content by private players. Presently, the use of counter-speech as an effective tool in countering the extremist narratives is limited, though not absent. However, there remains little evaluation of what is ‘online extremism’ and under what circumstances such content should be limited. Due to the opaque system of blocking websites, the State is able to limit judicial scrutiny. Further, there is an absence of an effective remedy in instances of private censorship. There are few avenues available to users in case of wrongful takedowns. The absence of an effective policy has led to frequent over-blocking and silencing of alternate voices. This underscores the need to examine what constitutes ‘online extremism’ and the most effective mechanisms to counter it.