French Interior Ministry Blocks Websites Promoting Terrorism
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And we turn now to France where for the first time the government is using strict new antiterrorism laws to censor the web. The government tried to block five websites it says condone and glorify terrorism. It gave local Internet service providers, or ISPs, 24 hours to make the sites unavailable in France. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, the move raises questions about how governments can combat groups in cyberspace without trampling civil liberties.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: If you're in France and type the words al-Hayat Media Center into your search engine, you could be greeted by a graphic of a large red hand signaling you to stop. A message says you have been redirected to an official page of the interior ministry because you were about to access a site that promotes terrorism. The interior ministry said it planned to target dozens of sites in the coming days.
RICHARD BARRETT: I think it's one of those examples of a government reaching out for the bits of the Islamic State that it can see and feels that it can do something about rather than the bits that are really having the most impact.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Richard Barrett is a vice president at the Soufan Group and a former intelligence officer with MI5. He's skeptical the French move will have much effect.
BARRETT: Because I'm not sure that there's very much evidence of people being radicalized purely through watching things on the Internet. I think, generally speaking, most people agree that there have to be other people involved as well.
TEMPLE-RASTON: According to the French government, the number of people who left France to join the Islamic State, or ISIS, is around 1,500 - more than any other European country. Paris is trying to stem the exodus any way it can, and its Internet strategy is part of that effort. And last month, the European Union called for member countries to exercise more control over the Internet to battle ISIS's online recruiting and radicalization efforts. Barrett says that's easier said than done. There are technical issues.
BARRETT: If you're hitting the host site, that's one thing, like the al-Hayat Media, for example. But if you're hitting the ISPs, which are just sort of repeating the host site - just sort of messaging it on - then I think you've got a huge job of A, attacking them all, and B, of course, preventing people from getting access to ISPs which are outside your jurisdiction.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The French Interior Ministry is in fact having problems. Shortly after it announced the ban, four of the five sites targeted by the government were still available in France.
WILL MCCANTS: You know, I would prefer to see the Internet providers themselves apply their terms of service and take these websites down. It does make me uncomfortable when the government does it by fiat.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Will McCants directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution.
MCCANTS: It sets a bad precedent in terms of free speech, but then again, I'm an American, and we have different standards of free speech in this country than they do in Europe.
TEMPLE-RASTON: There was a time soon after the 9/11 attacks that the U.S. tried to take a number of so-called terrorist websites down, and it didn't have much success. It was like a game of Whac-a-Mole. As soon as a website was taken down in one place, it popped up in another. U.S. authorities came to the conclusion that there was a lot to be learned by leaving the websites up and watching who visited them. Experts say leaving up websites to learn about who ISIS wants to recruit could provide a different way to compete with them on the Internet. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.