Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has called for banning al Qaeda from the Internet. Or at least from YouTube. (Isn’t that the same thing?) It’s an endearing, “bless his heart” kind of moment. We all support the senator’s noble effort to fight al Qaeda … even as most of us are amazed at his lack of understanding of how the Internet works. Perhaps he should call Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and ask him how China’s efforts to ban the Internet have worked out.
In a previous post I noted that the federal government’s flawed grasp of Web 2.0 was contributing to flawed online counterterrorism policies. This demand by one of the nation’s premier homeland security policymakers to ban al Qaeda content from YouTube is a good example. Lieberman, who is one of the more knowledgeable and commonsensical legislators on national security matters, is living in a different era when it comes to communications and propaganda.
Fine, ban al Qaeda from YouTube. It won’t stop al Qaeda videos from popping up all over the Internet. On other video hosting sites. On any number of the millions of blogs. On social networking sites. Why not ban Harry Potter while you’re at it? And Paris Hilton. (God forbid an Osama sex tape should surface on the Internet.)
The federal government continues to operate under the strangely misguided notion that the Internet — that most democratic of all mediums, accessible to anybody with a computer — is some kind of monolithic infrastructure that can be controlled from the top, the digital equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire. Ban sinful literature from on high and it will disappear throughout the land, on pain of death.
Lieberman’s committee is holding hearings and issuing reports on how to break up al Qaeda’s presence online. The Department of Defense and our national security apparatus expend quite a bit of energy attempting to disrupt Qaeda communications online. How do we know what is al Qaeda as opposed to unlimited numbers of rip-offs and wannabes? Well, according to the government, the official stuff has Qaeda’s corporate logo, like Coca Cola.
Once Osama bin Laden becomes the new Bill Gates … have we won or lost the war on terrorism?
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not defending free speech for terrorists. However, I am arguing that issuing a government decree to cease and desist radical online propaganda is kind of like banning handguns in Washington, DC. It will allow for some political feel-good moments, but firearms and violence will continue to plague the streets if the root of the problem is not addressed.
America can’t win the fight against terrorist propaganda by trying to censor, stifle or ban the opposing voices. We can only win by employing the same tools and weapons our opponents are using and beating them at their own game. That strategy, however, will require a lot more time and intellectual sweat and frustration.
Isn’t it easier to just go back to your constituents and say: Rest easy, folks – I’ve banned al Qaeda.