by Joseph Braude
Earlier this year at a conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz made a series of noteworthy remarks about the widespread phenomenon of terrorist recruitment and incitement on the Internet. He called on Saudi youth to take the initiative to counter extremists’ online activity with their own responses, by arguing against strident interpretations of Islam and advancing their own, tolerant understanding of the religion in its stead. He also called on people of good conscience throughout the world — including state and non-state elements — to play their part in fighting extremism on the Internet and social media.
The king’s comments have raised numerous issues of interest to peoples and leaderships of Western democratic societies who are themselves grappling with similar problems. The statements have also laid bare the stark contrasts among countries in North America and Europe — and vis a vis their Arab allies — with respect to their differing approaches to this common scourge.
Perhaps it was no accident that shortly before the OIC conference, French President Francois Hollande, a staunch Saudi ally, made statements about terrorism and the Internet strikingly similar in nature to those of the king. It was in January, a few short weeks after a series of bloody attacks in Paris, that he told 2,000 assembled business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to unite in a global campaign against terrorism. The initial statement was familiar and anodyne: “The response needs to be global, international, shared between those states that are on the front line [against terror].” But he went on to go beyond the realm of state policy: “This effort must also include businesses, especially the biggest ones, who have a duty to act.”
Calling on the private sector to play its part is of course significant because most terrorism incitement carried online uses commercial platforms controlled not by government but by corporations — ranging from the most powerful international social media companies (Twitter, Facebook, and so on) on the one hand, to the national and local Internet service providers on the other. Hollande noted that governments simply cannot fight terrorism on their own. Similar observations had also been previously made in the United States by Jeff Rosen, a prominent member of the American Bar Association (the country’s national lawyers’ guild): “Today, lawyers at Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twit¬ter have more power over who can speak and who can be heard than any president, judge, or monarch.”
But where Hollande and various Americans agree in diagnosing the problem, France and much of Western Europe respond to it differently than the United States. As Rosen observed, French law criminalizes the denigration of communities and religion, whereas American law does not ban the slandering of a “communal identity” — only the slandering of an individual. Thus with respect to domestic Internet service providers, the French government can readily and easily demand that a provider within its borders shut down a Web site controlled by extremists, whereas the United States government almost never does so. Meanwhile, the largest, multinational social media companies claim to abide by the laws of the countries in which they operate. In practice, however, they rarely do. Even during the heat of the 2012 Benghazi riots against the American-produced YouTube film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” Google refused to block access to the film via its search engine. The company eventually made a brief, partial exception — but only in Egypt and Libya, where the risk that the film would inspire violence was seen to be the greatest. This month, amid the violence in Israel, American Jewish activists attempted to persuade Facebook to take down a page called “Stab a Jew,” which seeks to persuade people to kill Jews wherever they find them. As of this writing, Facebook still refuses to take down the page — and, for that matter, thousands of others like it denigrating and inciting against people of many different religions and nationalities.
Given the vast size of the United States and the impunity with which extremists exploit its freedoms to spread hate online, the question of how to mitigate the problem has inspired a range of proposed strategies. Over time, citizen activists have persuaded numerous American Internet Service Providers to adopt the principle of voluntarily policing themselves. Though it may not be illegal to spread hate, a company can establish “terms of service” to which all customers must agree, stipulating that they may not use the platform to promulgate hate speech. In the United States today, the majority of Internet Service Providers require that all users accept such terms. Though enforcement has been spotty, determined activism and popular pressure has sometimes shown itself to be effective in holding the Internet companies to their own standards.
Meanwhile, some legal affairs activist groups have been working tirelessly to seek out rare legal precedents in the United States that could potentially be effective against hate speech. For example, the organization “Partners Against Hate” points significantly to a landmark court case in 1999: A coalition of extremist groups opposed to the abortion of unborn fetuses was ordered to pay over $100 million in damages for providing information to a Web site which posed a threat to the safety of a number of doctors and clinic workers who perform abortions. The site posted photos of abortion providers, their home addresses, license plate numbers, and the names of their spouses and children. In three instances, after a doctor listed on the site was murdered, a line was drawn through his name. Although the site fell short of explicitly calling for an assault on doctors, the jury in the court case found that the information it contained amounted to a real threat of bodily harm. The analogy between the 1999 case and terrorism incitement is quite obvious, and a new wave of court cases are expected in the United States that will attempt to use it against terror groups. It seems possible that new forms of international cooperation and coordination between American anti-terror lawyers and Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states may prove helpful in enhancing the success of these legal efforts, given the inherently international nature of the cases.
There is also an interesting parallel, worthy of note, between King Salman’s clarion call to Saudi youth to counter hate speech on the one hand, and sentiments espoused by some American anti-hate activists on the other. The American “Anti-Defamation League” has published a pamphlet titled “Responding to Cyberhate: Toolkit for Action.” It presents an action plan for the role of differing segments of American society in countering the ugly phenomenon. Sections of the brochure include, “What Internet Providers Can Do,” “What Government Can Do,” “What Parents Can Do,” and “What Users Can Do.” This thoughtful document stresses the important role of the family in modeling respect for peoples of other ethnicities and religions. It also calls on Internet users to respond proactively to haters online with their own, positive messages. Internet users are warned not to allow themselves to be dragged “down into the mud” with cyberhaters, but rather to appeal to the Internet browsers, through respectful communication, to see the ugliness of the purveyors of hate for what it is.
However different the legal systems, social norms, and principles that underpin various countries of the world, the closer one observers public responses to hate speech, the more obvious it is that civilized peoples everywhere are united in opposition to it. It is only a matter of forging closer ties for partnership across borders to fix the problem — a transnational response to what is after all a transnational scourge.