British Parliament wants to shut down extremist content online — at what cost?

The?United Kingdom Parliament’s intelligence and security committee?published a report?last month titled, “The 2017 Attacks: What needs to change?”

The title is a reference to the five major?terrorist attacks that took place in London and Manchester?last year.

“There has been an enormous growth in the volume of extremist material that can be found online,” part of the report reads.?“Studies have shown that almost all attack planners between 2012 and 2017 have downloaded, shared or consumed radical and extremist media of some kind.”

The committee wants more help from tech companies to fight extremist content online. It has asked some companies to remove content?or make them password protected — including one?in the US called?Jihadoloy.net, which was started by Aaron Y. Zelin,?a fellow?at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (According to the site, Jihadology.net?is Zelin’s personal project and is not associated with the institute.)

Zelin declined to comment for this story, but a description on the site calls it?“a clearinghouse?for Sunni jihadi primary source material.”

He?told The Financial Times?that in the past two years,?he has?received multiple requests from the UK government to shut down the site.

Nikita Malik, Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism?in the UK, says this is part of a wider campaign by the British government to crack down on extremist content online.

“We’re looking at a problem that is much bigger than one specific website,” she says, “but the?Jihadology website is being targeted because it is an archive of … propaganda material.”

Malik says he has no doubt that the material on the?site has helped academics?in their research. “But from the?government’s point of view, we?don’t want to make that too easily accessible to a civilian who might be consuming it for more sinister purposes.”

The?debate about how to handle extremist material online is nothing new, says Elliot Zweig, deputy director of the?Middle East Media Research Institute?(MEMRI) in Washington, DC.

“For over 10 years now, there’s been a contentious debate about whether terrorist content should be allowed to remain unharmed for potential research and intelligence value or whether it should be taken down so as to minimize the harm.”

Zweig believes this type of content should be kept under wraps.

“We decided since the beginning that we’re thoroughly and firmly in the camp of advocating not making this content publicly available for the supposed benefit of researchers,” he says.” If a researcher wishes to study this issue, I believe they have an ethical responsibility first and foremost to not cause further harm.”

MEMRI also tracks online extremist content?but it doesn’t make it publicly accessible.?Researchers have to request it and in some cases pay for it. (Jihadology.net only charges?for translation services.)

Related:?New internet laws in Russia — and US tech giants’ acquiescence — spell trouble for dissenting voices

But?Seamus?Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, thinks online radicalization is much more complicated than watching a few videos online.

“The idea is if you watch an ISIS video, you’re going to become an ISIS supporter … I am an example of why that doesn’t happen,” he explains. “I spend hours a week looking at ISIS propaganda. [Becoming radicalized] is more interactive. You’re talking to recruiters. You’re getting a sense of their ideology. You’re not just doing this one-way intake of propaganda.”

Seamus says he uses Jihadology.net?for his research.?And in fact, it was through this site that he was able to?identify an ISIS fighter.

“In one case, I had a law enforcement source tell me about an American who was featured in a video beheading soldiers,” he says. “And I didn’t have the video because it came out very quickly and it was removed. But because of Jihadology, I was able to weave through all of his filings and figure out that it was Zulfi Hoxha, who was the first known American to be beheading people. And without the video, I wouldn’t have been able to crack the case.”

Seamus?wrote about Hoxha, the son of an Albanian-American pizza-shop owner from New Jersey, for The Atlantic.

Related:?China exports its restrictive internet policies to dozens of countries, says Freedom House

Tabitha Mwangi, a counter-terrorism researcher in Nairobi, Kenya, thinks?the conversation needs to change “from ‘Do we shut down the website or not?’ to “How can we support Aaron [Zelin] and people like him?””

She was just 8 years old when the 1998 twin?attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania took place. “So I grew up knowing about these bunch of bad guys who tried to blow up the building my mom was in.”

The bad guys turned out to be members of al-Qaeda, the same group that carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States, just three years later.

Mwangi became obsessed?with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and went on to study counter-terrorism in school.

“It’s very difficult to get the information unless you know where to look.”?

She uses Jihadology to?get information mostly about al-Shabab because that is the group that has affected Kenya the most,?but also the Islamic State and others.

If we are serious about understanding these groups and their inner workings, we need to know how they operate, Mwangi says.?

Related: How we can use ‘digital fingerprints’ to keep terrorist messaging from spreading online

But in the end, Nikita Malik, the UK-based researcher thinks there should be a balance.

“We shouldn’t have a beheading video being advertised on the side of a campaign on Facebook,” she says. “These things are common sense. On the other end of the spectrum, we don’t want to end up becoming a country where censorship is too much, like China or some Middle Eastern countries where people feel unable to express their dissent against regimes.”

What the Jihadology story comes down to is this: How do we regulate the digital space without compromising freedom of speech and access to information?

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