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A Muzzle on Internet Freedom

The Taliban are using U.S web site-hosting services to spread their propaganda, Joby Warrick and Candace Rondeaux write this morning. That revelation has sparked a strong debate among our Readers Who Comment. Some think those sites should be shut down; others see such action as a direct governmental assault on basic freedoms.

It's a technologically enabled version of a classic argument. Do we let topics of which we disapprove find voice or do we suppress them? Who decides? What about blatant enemy-serving lies, which some will believe?

There can be an intelligence benefit to monitoring these sites, as some who comment argue, but letting them operate irritates some of our allies. And, by the way, hosting companies make money. So which American values are we going to attack or defend?

We'll start with petermhmurray, who wrote, "Thats the trouble with the internet. It provides an outlet for the extremists you hate as well as the extremists you like... Free-speech and hate are ok when its "our" type of free speech and hate. Same thing with democracy - ok when it produces the "right" result. Not so when it produces a Hamas, Allende, or Chavez...."

ChicagoKen said, "Free speech is crucial to a free society, something that we will not have if we close off communication from groups we do not like, either the Taliban (why did we overthrow them in the first place?) or the right wing nutters. If people say crazy and offensive things they will be mocked. If they are not mocked, the rest of us are not presenting proper counter arguments."

lennyjazz added, "Beware. This is the way that the government moves to censor what we can read and hear. It tells us it must protect children - or that freedom of expression will be abused by extremists."

But TooManyPeople wrote, "The Internet: In modern man's quest to improve life through the use of technology has once again created a another monster."

niceshoes1 said, "I don't see what the big deal is here. Tools are agnostic. They can be used for good or evil. These types of article amplify fear mongering over the openness and anonymity of the internet."

To which lostinthemiddle replied, "Wow. Ok. The big deal is that jihadists are operating within US law enforcement's jurisdiction. The truth is not fear mongering; its just the truth."

bdunn1 said, "I'm more worried about the right-wing extremist sites frequented by fans of Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Michelle Bachmann and the many others who practice hate speech that leads to violence. There's a story for you, WaPo."

But ddpcgraphics wrote, "I am more worried by the leftists that want a socialist government"

John1263 set off an interesting conversation in asking, "How much easier is it to track these sites if they are hosted in the US? It would seem that it is a simple method of getting more infromation about the groups who we want to monitro. And how hard could it possibly be to get a FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] warrent for a group website like that? DUh."

To which DD163 replied, "Your right and we do...We monitor...these sights...The problem is the amount of resources it takes to do this... If a Pakistani terrorist group were operating a site in Pakistan, they would be shut down."

And mike85 observed that, "You're both probably right, but I wonder if monitoring this type of site falls under the NSA's authority, or if it falls under wire-taping provisions that seem to be in limbo."

alarico wrote. "It seems quite stupid to make a fuss and shut them down. Isn't it much better to keep quiet, snoop to our heart's content, and track them down wherever they are? Dumb..."

brwntrt said, "This is another example of capitalism run amok. It is only about the money."

And thardman admitting self-interest, wrote, "I have never seen a better argument for the promotion of small-business mom-and-pop loyal-American webservices operations... yes, I'm a local operator of local internet services that still can reach the world... I'll never support the right of terrorists to use my equipment and InterNet connection to kill my fellow Americans."

gkiltz said, "At least by using American hosting, we can track them and get a fairly good idea what they're doing! If they were really hosting out of say Russia, China, India, or Singapore, they can make themselves impossible to track! Spammers do it all the time!"

vigor wrote, "too many delicious layers of irony here; that they love our reliability and that we'll take their money and serve them. Hey that's Free Markets, right?"

We'll close with daweeni, who suggested that "This is a clever ruse to insinuate our culture into their lives. The Internet is a nest of all sins, and they will all be corrupted, and addicted to Facebook!!!"

All comments on this article are here.

By Doug Feaver  |  April 9, 2009; 9:10 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  | Tags: Intelligence, Internet  
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Next: Comments About Comments


To post on a blog, the poster has to post from somewhere. The question becomes, "Do we give NSA the money, manpower, and legal authority to run them down, through sites designed to give cover to antisocial elements, from mass spammers, through con artists, through hate mongers, right back to terrorists?" An ancillary question is, since this will be a significant increase in domestic surveillance, which is not supposed to be an NSA function, should we set up a domestic surveillance bureau equivalent to the FBI (which is also legitimately restricted in its domestic surveillance)?

But take it from an old COMMINT guy, you NEVER shut down a communications channel if you can listen to it and gain valuable intelligence. You don't even jam the channel. COMMINT is the most reliable source of intelligence exactly because the targets being monitored have to tell each other the truth. Even attempts to deceive the communications monitors give their analysts valuable information.

So reconsider the question; is the presence of Taliban and their ilk on the internet something that you would surrender privacy rights that you don't actually have anyway, in order to get at those people, a reason to start a Domestic Communications Surveillance Bureau?

I have my resume ready when they start hiring.

Posted by: ceflynline | April 10, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Shutting down the facility , as China does on a regular basis, is not a sign of mature Democracy.All such comments may be met with counter points.An idea can be fought with only idea.

Posted by: ramanan50 | April 10, 2009 4:05 AM | Report abuse

You need a policy where complaints about other users are investigated and when there is sufficient reason behind these complaints the users are banned by a program that simply rejects comments by the banned users.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 9, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

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