ISPs must be vigilant against extremist content

Recent terrorist attacks in France, Germany, Belgium and the UK show how terrorism and violent extremism are increasingly becoming uncontrollable. Internet terrorists are deliberately using social media to target tens of thousands of followers. Findings of global experts show that ISIS has been very successful in using the Internet to recruit new fighters via social media. Now we have entered a time in which social media is used as never before and is a central tool to spread hateful messages.

The fact that technology has been tremendously integrated in all circles of life, terrorists too have capitalised on this to find loophole to execute their heinous acts. As such, technology companies have vowed to deter any extremist content posted online. The world is unlikely to be safe without cooperation of the high technology companies, known as high tech. Just recently, the tech giants pledged to enhance preventive mechanisms against using technology as a safe space for terrorist ideology. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple, were among the tech companies already willing to tackle extremist content. They’re committed to working hard to rid their networks of terrorist activity and support.

A similar commitment is incredibly needed to our local internet intermediaries, particularly Internet Service Providers (ISPs). ISPs need to stay vigilant as the terrorists now misuse internet platform to trample upon the rights of the internet users. While internet is one of the most important technological achievements of the 21st century, it has also proven to be a powerful tool for terrorist purposes. That’s a Pandora’s box of the internet, it has generated many unmanageable problems. It has become a fertile ground for terrorists. In Rwanda, Internet Service Providers must not only focus on privacy but also on security, especially in preventing extremist ideology that might prop up terrorism.

In doing so, a scrupulous balance is, however, necessary to avoid tampering with people’s right to privacy. But, in case of national security interest, or imminent terror attack, obviously privacy would be a matter of peripheral concern. Even where the companies may be required by authorities to give the so-called ‘back door’, or brute force, must be cooperative. The government alone is incapable of stamping out terrorism and radicalism without engaging Internet Service Providers. ISPs must be alert to take down extremist content and limit the amount of end-to-end encryption that terrorists can use.

Nobody ignores that the goal of internet regulation for the authorities is to provide a healthy environment, spurring social and economic development. In countries like China they have created ‘the Great Firewall’, which is a system of Internet blocks and filters to regulate access to politically undesirable and objectionable materials. I’m not, however, advocating for a similar system. Because this internet filtering apparatus is a curtailment to the internet users from accessing thousands of websites hosted outside of China.

In Rwanda, most of the ISPs operating are telephone companies, such as MTN, TIGO, and Airtel which only provide facilities and do not know what content is going through the wires. Though they may enjoy some level of immunity, they have to comply with existing legal requirements, most notably ‘notice and take down’ of objectionable content (e.g. radicalised ideology). This requirement comports well with the existing information communication technology law in Rwanda. Apparently, this is a standard in many countries. For example, in EU-member states, the model is based on the e-Commerce Directive (ECD) in the European Union where almost complete immunity is provided to internet intermediaries who merely provide technical access to the internet. However, they lose their immunity if they fail to act expeditiously to remove or disable access to illegal information when they obtain actual knowledge of such content. This system effectively provides the basis for a ‘notice and take down’ without actually fleshing it out.

As a matter of practicality, it is argued that ISPs, or intermediaries in general, are best placed to block, filter or remove any materials at issue since they have the technical and financial means to do so. Besides, as a matter of fairness, it is argued that ISPs should offer solutions to the challenges of terrorism and radicalism ideology that are using the internet as a gateway to terror attack. Once Internet Service Providers become fully cooperative with law enforcement agencies, terror threats can be minimised. Internet intermediaries need to substantially increase their efforts to address terrorist content.

This industry is in a better position to proactively develop and share new technology and tools to improve the automatic detection of content promoting incitement to violence or extremism. The internet intermediaries must be committed to responding to any notification of unlawful activity that is likely to result into extremism and radicalism. Terrorist attacks do not occur in a vacuum, they often use social media to easily spread their heinous ideology to recruit followers. To this end, it is quite important to build collaborative efforts, by engaging civil society, youth and religious leaders, and educational institutions. What an uphill battle!

The writer in an international law expert.