Google says Isis must be locked out of the open web

Google’s head of ideas, tasked with building tools to fight oppression, has said that to stop Isis being able to publicise itself on the internet requires forcing Isis from the open web.

During a talk with the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, Jared Cohen said that it will not be possible to stop terrorists such as Isis from using Tor and the dark web. The key to stopping the terrorist group from propagating online is therefore to hound them from the traditional web – that which can be indexed by search engines.

Cohen said: “What is new is that they’re operating without being pushed back in the same internet we all enjoy. So success looks like Isis being contained to the dark web.”

Isis propaganda has been effective at spreading information online. It has produced slick videos, hijacked existing social media trends including hashtags, and used bots to spread its messages. Online, it has made itself look bigger and more widespread than it physically is in Syria and surrounding areas.

Cohen said: “What Isis is doing is reflective of the times, as opposed to some sort of new sophistication that magically appeared.”

Challenging free speech

Isis has used tools and services made in the west for its own gain, which has put technology companies, particularly social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter in a difficult position. On the one hand they look to offer an environment of free speech, which comes into direct conflict with the desire to suppress terrorist propaganda.

Cohen said Isis “has managed to create an exaggerated sense of their size online” by creating many more accounts than it has members, thereby creating the narrative that the group is winning.

“But while the digital front is more complex, it could be where we can see greater short-term wins, so we should not neglect it,” he said.

To do this Cohen said that Isis members openly promoting their cause online must fear retribution and being caught for their actions. Their social media accounts must be removed as fast as they are produced to prevent people making contact with Isis recruiters on the open web.

Recent analysis by George Washington University’s programme on extremism, which looked at social media and legal documents of nearly 400 American followers of Isis, found that having a Twitter account suspended was a “badge of honour” among US-based Isis supporters. The Isis in America: From Retweets to Raqqa report painted a picture of a thriving “American Isis Twitter scene” and showed that social media activity played a crucial role in radicalisation and mobilisation to Iraq and Syria.

In Cohen’s opinion, Isis is “not a tech savvy organisation”, resorting to tactics commonly associated with fraud or spam, but it should not be underestimated.

Recently Isis has been reported as moving to encrypted chat apps, such as Telegram, as well as its own app developed for its own purposes. It has also been attacked by hacking collective Anonymous on the open and dark web.

But how do you fight Isis on the open web beyond simply shutting down accounts? Targeted advertising has been proposed as one idea, using the same techniques as ad-tech companies use to track and target adverts for products or services, showing propaganda readers an alternative view in an attempt to disrupt the process of inducting new members.

comments powered by Disqus