Increasingly, extremists are using the Internet to communicate, spread information and network. Although only a few individuals have been convinced to carry out terrorist operations simply by reading material online, this is changing. The internet is playing a significant conveyor-belt role in the transition of people from curiosity to seeking a cause to violence. As law enforcement agencies monitor the physical spaces, making it harder for extremist groups to operate in the open, some of these groups are turning to cyberspace.
The recent sentencing of Abdul Benbrika and others in Melbourne on terrorism-related offences showed how central the internet was to both the recruitment and radicalisation of individuals. According to the evidence, there was widespread access to and discussion of extremist websites among the group. In sentencing Benbrika to twelve years in prison, Justice Bongiorno noted that, although the possession of such material might not be a criminal offence, it takes on a more sinister complexion when used by charismatic leaders to encourage or engage in acts of terrorism. That said, most radicalisation still requires some ‘real-world’ face-to-face contact.
The internet reinforces political messages and builds online communities sharing similar perspectives. These messages provide inspiration, practical instructions and a support network that facilitates links with other cells. The anonymity of the internet has lowered the threshold for those wanting to engage in risky behaviour. There are, however, real legal problems confronting authorities where a website is hosted in one state and incites violence in another, while the extremists behind it plan operations from a third country.
There are at least three broad approaches to dealing with this very complex problem. First, a strategy of zero tolerance (blocking sites, prosecuting site administrators, using internet filters); second, encouraging internet end users to directly challenge the extremist narrative; and finally, intelligence-led strategies of monitoring leading to targeting, investigation, disruption and arrest. Each approach will have advantages and drawbacks in its security consequences, economic impacts and human rights implications.*
To date, Australian authorities have done little to tackle online radicalisation. The Rudd government’s clear election commitment as part of its Cyber-safety plan was, however, to favour the introduction of Internet Service Provider (ISP)-level filtering, which has proved effective in blocking the content of internet websites, predominantly comprising images of the sexual abuse of children. The argument for mandatory filters is the same in principle as the argument for a film censorship system.
The government hopes to introduce mandatory ISP-level content filtering that would automatically block ‘refused classification’ material matched against a web page blacklist that is managed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Refused-classification material includes images of child sexual abuse, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and material that advocates terrorist activity. Optus is participating in a broadband filtering trial being undertaken by the federal government. It is the eighth internet service provider to participate in the scheme. The government wants ISPs to conduct live tests to gauge the impact of content filtering on networks, and determine whether it would vastly slow down internet speeds.
Most western governments prefer to monitor sites and extreme chat rooms to get a window into extremist groups’ operations and thinking rather than trying to censor the internet. Many technical experts argue that a hardline censorship approach is not only expensive, but doesn’t really work: eliminating one site often results in another site popping up. Closing down an extremist chat room might simply mean the online traffic goes to other sites.
Monitoring provides very useful information for policing and intelligence agencies, although it can raise civil liberties issues as well. Some extremist groups, of course, know they are being monitored. They might adopt measures such as coded messages to hide their online activities and stay off the radar screen of law enforcement.
Apart from monitoring, there may be occasions when Australian authorities might wish to take action against a particular site to demonstrate it's on the offensive or selectively prosecute those producing extremist websites (rather than the consumers).
Australian authorities should encourage internet end users to directly challenge the extremist narrative by providing incentives to create websites and online forums that promote tolerance.
Encouraging parents and teachers to alert students to the risks of websites that preach extremism is also important. This issue can be raised in the general context of cyber-safety education.
* These approaches are outlined within a Southeast Asian context in a joint ASPI and Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) report by Anthony Bergin, Sulastri Bte Osman, Carl Ungerer and Nur Azlin Mohammed Yasin, Countering Internet Radicalisation in Southeast Asia, March 2009.