Is Google An Enabler Of Terrorists?

by Jerry Gordon and Joseph Shahda[1] (June 2008)


U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, chair of
Senate Homeland  Security and Government Affairs Committee, is trying to  take down hundreds of terrorist videos on YouTube operated by Google many showing violent actions against US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The videos give instructions in making weapons to conduct such attacks, while others spew out incitement to hate against us.  On May 19th, Lieberman sent a letter to Dr. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google calling on Google to take down the terrorist content produced by al Qaeda and its wannabes. We also would include by extension videos currently posted by Al Manar, the Hezbollah TV outlet, on YouTube.

How violent are these terrorist videos on YouTube?  See for yourself at these links: here, here  and here.

As noted in the Senator’s letter:

Central to this media campaign is the branding of content with an icon or logo to guarantee authenticity that the content was produced by al-Qaeda or their directly controlled franchises like al-Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a Islamic State in Iraq), Ansar al-Islam (a.k.a Ansar al-Sunnah) or al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb.  All of these groups have been designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations  (FTOs) by the Department of State.”

Senator Lieberman appealed to ‘the better nature’ of Google by urging it to follow its own guidelines and noted: 

YouTube posts “community guidelines” for users to follow, but it does not appear that the company is enforcing these guidelines to the extent they would apply to this content. For example, the community guidelines state that “[g]raphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed. If your video shows someone getting hurt, attacked, or humiliated, don’t post it.” Many of the videos produced by one of the production arms of al-Qaeda show attacks on U.S. forces in which American soldiers are injured and, in some cases, killed.

Lieberman ended the letter to Google by entreating it to do the right thing: take the terrorist content down. 

I ask you, therefore, to immediately remove content produced by Islamist terrorist organizations from YouTube. This should be a straightforward task since so many of the Islamist terrorist organizations brand their material with logos or icons identifying their provenance. In addition, please explain what changes Google plans to make to the YouTube community guidelines to address violent extremist material and how Google plans to enforce those guidelines to prevent the content from reappearing.

Google’s reply from Dr. Schmidt was to take down dozens of the more offending al Qaeda videos, but leave up many others.  It was a sop to alleged First Amendment ‘free speech’ doctrine by appealing to the best judgment of YouTube viewers to determine what was ‘offensive’.   Check out this terrorist video posted on YouTube  as one example of  the Google policy.  Note the caveat:

This video or group may contain content that is inappropriate for some users, as flagged by YouTube's user community.

To view this video or group, please verify you are 18 or older by logging in or signing up.

Immediately, Senator Lieberman was attacked by the ACLU, and the New York Times for engaging in censorship.  They were supported by the terrorists.  Here is a translation by Joe Shahda from Ekhlass, one of the largest terrorist Internet forums, on the Google/YouTube kerfuffle:

Author “Abdel Wahab”: “The pig Lieberman did not only request what you mentioned brother Salafi but he also asked YouTube to remove materials that does not contain hate which means Islamic materials. But it appears that he has received a blow from the Google administration that owns YouTube. Even the regular people from his election district sent condemnation letters.”

The New York Times in its May 25th editorial, “Joe Lieberman, Would-Be Censor” hewed to the artless line that Senator Lieberman’s request to Google amounted to ‘censorship’ - a violation of free speech under our Constitution.  The Times weighed in:

While it is fortunate that Mr. Lieberman does not have the power to tell YouTube that it must remove videos, it is profoundly disturbing that an influential senator would even consider telling a media company to shut down constitutionally protected speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the “Homegrown Terrorism” bill and related efforts “could be a precursor to proposals to censor and regulate speech on the Internet.”

Not only do these efforts contradict fundamental American values, it is not clear if they would help fight terrorism. Even if YouTube pulled down every video Mr. Lieberman did not like, radical groups could post the same videos on their own Web sites. Trying to restrain the Internet is a game of “whack-a-mole” that cannot be won, says John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Having the videos on YouTube may even be a good thing, because it makes it easier for law enforcement officials, the media and the public to monitor the groups and their messages.

Lieberman responded to the New York Times editorial in a Letter entitled: “Terror and the Internet” published on March 28th:

The intelligence community, moreover, sounded the alarm about proliferation of radical Islamist sites in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate: warning that, even absent guidance from established terror organizations, the Internet enables “alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources to attack.”

What is ludicrous is the claim that YouTube has been pressured to pull down videos just because I don’t like them. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are engaged in a wartime communications strategy to recruit, amass funds and inspire savage attacks against American troops and civilians. Their Internet videos are branded with logos, authenticating them as enemy communications. They are patent incitements to violence, not First Amendment-protected speech. And they fall outside Google’s own stated guidelines for content.

The peril here is not to legitimate dissent but to our fundamental right of self-defense. For those of us in government, protecting Americans is the highest responsibility. Asking private parties operating public communications systems to assist that effort is common sense.

The Hounds of the Baskervilles among the Internet ‘free speech advocates’ began a counter attack against the Senator. 

John Morris of an advocacy group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, with major funding from Google cites the chink in the law:  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows web hosts to restrict content that is objectionable. The most recent example of that was the Fitna film posted by Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders that was viewed as both anti-Islamic and inflammatory and dropped by one host on the Internet, LiveLeak.  Morris rationalized the Google position thusly:

Under section 230, YouTube has no obligation to review this kind of content. The policy judgment …is that speech on the Internet … would be radically harmed if sites had the responsibility to review every single bit of posting and content that their users put up there.

Eric Goldman, an assistant law professor at Santa Clara University noted that a non-binding resolution of the House adopted last year called on user-posted video sites to do what the Senator had requested. However he noted:

So what if Google/ YouTube suppressed those videos. They would still be available on-line somewhere, so why do politicians care if they are hosted on Google/YouTube vs. somewhere else? What a silly PR stunt by Lieberman.

The Senator and those of us concerned about terrorist use of the Internet have opponents.  On a Diane Rehm Show, broadcast on NPR May 29th on the subject of “Al Qaeda and Jihadist Dissent” [listen here] there was a gathering of such opponents including: ex-CIA Osama Bin Laden analyst, Michael Scheuer, Fawaz Gerges, Middle East policy wonk at Sarah Lawrence College, Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst and Bin Laden observer and Jarret Brachman, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point).  A caller from New Jersey asked a question about the Lieberman YouTube initiative. Scheuer’s reaction was that Lieberman was on “his true Israel first stance trying to protect Israel by curtailing free speech.”  Brachman responded, “the YouTube videos give us one of the few windows into the mindset of the Islamists. Many of the videos are pure kid’s play. They are the equivalent of Mein Kampf over and over again.”

Those comments don’t wash with Joseph Shahda or Israeli expert, Prof. Niv Ahituv of Tel Aviv University’s Netvision Institute for Internet Studies.

Shahda’s comments support what Lieberman and his Senate Committee are trying to do:

In the last three years cyberspace terrorists have been using YouTube, Google videos, LiveLeak and other similar free video hosting websites to post hundreds if not thousands of terrorist videos that include attacks on US troops, attacks on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and barbaric videos such as beheadings of people. In the last few months there has been an ongoing project on the two largest internet terrorist forums Ekhlaas and Al Hesbah about creating an Al Qaeda channel on YouTube. Although YouTube has shut down many of these terrorist videos there are still hundreds of them that remain operational and dozens of new ones are posted every day. YouTube, LiveLeak and Google videos should have a special and very effective process to immediately eliminate the terrorist videos posted on their servers. This should be a separate process to flag any type of unwanted videos. Taking terrorist videos down should be a priority.

Shahda also notes:

One author on a terrorist website said that they cannot shut down the terrorist videos because they can post them on the “Arab YouTube” and the “Islamic YouTube”. I searched the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who host these “Arab YouTube” and “Islamic YouTube” and they are located right here in the US.

This parallels the comments of Tel Aviv University Professor Ahituv in an article entitled, “A Digital Haven for Terrorists on Our Own Shores?”

These websites hosted in America are targeting Muslim mothers in America, Canada, and the U.K. and all over the world, convincing them that being ‘Shahid’ or a suicide bomber is particularly good and very important for their sons.

Available in English, Arabic, Spanish and other languages, the websites also provide tutorials on bomb building and enlist impressionable American and British Muslim women and men into a life of terror activity.

The Islamic Jihad operates 15 websites in Arabic and English, hosted by both U.S. and Canadian companies. Hamas operates 20 websites in eight languages, a portion of which are based in the U.S and Canada, while Hezbollah operates 20 websites, also hosted by companies in the U.S. and Canada.

Ahituv’s conclusions mirror those of Shahda:

The FBI has shut down a few websites, but American law prevents the closure of most. Terrorists could coordinate a 9/11-scale attack via these websites. There are, however, some people who believe that leaving those websites intact is desired in order to monitor content, trends and policy. It is hard to tell which side is right.

In the wake of Senator Lieberman’s Google YouTube terrorist video effort, what are the plausible things that should be done vis a vis our telecommunications law with regard to Internet Service Providers.

Congressional sources advised us about several possible remedies.  First, Google and other U.S. based ISPs have to do a better job of enforcing their own community guidelines on what is offensive and take down remaining terrorist content.  Second, these terrorist groups, Al Qaeda in its various guises, Hamas, Hezbollah and others, are designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) by our State Department. ISPs here in the U.S. shouldn’t be doing any business with them.  Others like Hezbollah’s al Manar media group are already subject to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) requirements to seize assets should they do business here in the U.S.  Al Manar video content is up on YouTube. Shahda’s investigation of two Hezbollah websites, one of which is hosted here in the US, facilitates donations to this FTO through either Lebanon or Syria. Tightening up the responsibilities of ISPs under Section 230 and making them accountable would be of material assistance.

Google /YouTube have reacted by pulling some of the most egregious al Qaeda video content, but not by any means all. Moreover, it hasn’t even addressed the Hezbollah/Al Manar video content, or that of other FTOs.  So we ask the question. Are Google and other U.S. ISPs enablers of terrorism?  Perhaps.  The answer may lie in the further hearings and revelations by Senator Lieberman and his Committee.  From this discussion it appears there is a lot more to be done to ensure that we are protecting Americans from this terrorist menace on the Internet.

[1] Jerry Gordon is a Member of the Board of American Congress for Truth, Corporate Secretary and Blog editor. Joseph Shahda is an Arabic Speaking Lebanese American who monitors Islamist terrorist websites and forums. See his profile here.

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