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Free Expression Demands Online Compete With Needs for Curbs

A screen shot from the website before it went offline (Morgunblaðið)

One of the things people often say they like most about the Internet is that it’s a global free-speech zone; a place where just about anyone can say just about anything they want.

One of the things most hated about web? It’s a place where just about anyone can say just about anything they want.

Resolving the competing concerns between guaranteeing freedom of expression online and preventing malicious or criminal acts is a tough trick even in the best of times.

But when you throw extremist groups like the so-called Islamic State and their bloody social media activity into the mix, it can seem almost impossible.

As the Internet and social media become more ubiquitous across the world, that’s exactly the task that governments, individuals and private corporations must increasingly confront.

And it’s a tricky balance, analysts say.

Every nation is given a certain amount of control over what’s known as its “top-level country code domain.”

In Internet-speak, that’s the “.uk” or “.ru” appendages at the end of many Internet addresses. Each two-letter code constitutes a portion of the web that each nation can regulate – setting up their own rules as to who can purchase and operate a website using their national domain.

Iceland factor

The nation of Iceland’s domain is “.is” and while only 50,000 some domains have been registered, many are owned and operated somewhere other than Iceland. That’s because the “.is” domain is a popular “domain hack” – meaning when someone uses the domain to help spell out a word or phrase. Examples for Iceland include popular sites such as “” or “”.

Until recently, you could have added another domain hack to this list: “” “Khilafah” is Arabic for “Caliphate” and the web appeared to be the work of the so-called Islamic State, or IS, militants. The Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið reported that the site was “… mainly sort of a news por­tal for IS”, but included messages directed to Washington and information related to the recent executions of journalists by IS militants.

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, expressed “deep disappointment” that one of the nation’s domains was being used to promote Islamic extremism. Reykjavík moved swiftly to bring pressure on the national domain regulator, ISNIC, which in turn shut the site down.

Such a move might be considered relatively non-controversial, but Iceland has staked a claim as one of the world’s most secure and free places for Internet traffic and expression.

Helgi Hrafn Gun­nars­son, a member of parliament, blamed the government of pressuring ISNIC to suspend the domain – a move ISNIC has never before taken. Calling the IS “horrific”, Gunnarsson also said on Facebook it was wrong to suspend the site, saying that people need to “be able to reach their own conclusions” on controversial matters.

“This is alarming,” said Guðjón Idir, executive director of the Iceland-based International Modern Media Institute, who is also critical of the block.

“The correct channels were indeed the courts, but given that the Prime Minister had voiced his deep disappointment that the country domain had been used by this group for their propaganda …goes to show the mounting political pressure ISNIC were under,” he told VOA via e-mail.

“We believe it was the wrong action to take.”

Iceland’s government defends the move on security grounds, saying it’s necessary to protect people from a stateless militant group. Free speech advocates criticize the block as needless censorship that sets a bad precedent.

But there’s another view as well – one basically centered on money.

“In this case of ISIS, I would agree 100 percent that the government did the right thing, but it’s basically to protect their brand,” said Alain Ghiai, CEO of the Switzerland-based data security and storage firm DigitalSafe.

“What ISIS did – using .is – that’s actually really clever,” he said. “I don’t think they [the government] really cared that much more about you and I, it’s more about protecting their brand and reputation. If suddenly all these ISIS people have .is domain names, well, Iceland who is trying to brand itself as a data center, that business would go down.”

Breaking down barriers

Not so many years ago, in the days before the Internet and social media, part of a journalist’s job was to serve as a gatekeeper. When controversial stories or images of graphic violence came in to a bureau, reporters and editors worked hard to get the story out while keeping vivid material out of public view.

While many traditional journalists still work to strike that same balance, the web and “citizen journalism” have burst the gates wide open.

The IS’s sophisticated social media campaigns incldues documenting beheadings and mass shootings of Iraqi army soldiers, recruiting new fighters and spreading its version of radical Islam.

Few, if any, large media organizations – the BBC, Al-Hayat, the New York Times and VOA among them – published either images or video clips of the violence, relying instead on text descriptions of the images.

But thanks to social media, these clips quickly spread around the world and back, popping up on dozens of blogs, Twitter posts, video-sharing sites like YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere.

“That gate-keeper role is gone,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer at Washington’s First Amendment Center and a journalist of 40-plus years. “They can’t control the news anymore, But they can be the example of what accuracy and fairness and completeness means.”

That doesn’t mean that Policinski believes governments should control the news or free expression.

“Anytime any government anywhere begins to censor speech, it bears the utmost scrutiny to anybody who’s interested in freedom of expression,” he told VOA.

Policinski defends Iceland’s actions in this one narrow case, given that, as he puts it, “when you get a group like ISIS who uses this tactic which is killing people to make a political point, to me they forfeit much if not all of the protection normally afforded freedom of expression.”

But even the narrow exceptions of terrorism, Policinksi said, deserve great scrutiny before governments “leap to censor.”

In his view, private corporations – the Internet service providers, social networks and such – are the best situated to determine what can and can’t be said on their service. Recently, representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google attended a meeting with representatives of the European Union to discuss tools and techniques for limiting extremists’ use of social media and the Internet.

These may be tricky questions. But Policinski said, they’re not unanswerable.

“The concept of free expression ultimately rests in the concept that if we all talk to one another without a government interfering, that there will be a productive outcome,” Polickinski said. “Their [IS] goal is to prostitute free expression and to use it for an end that is outside the boundaries of what humans should be doing.”

Ongoing dilemma

It's easy for journalists and politicians to tout the general benefits of freedom of expression, online or otherwise. But in practice, it becomes much more difficult for all types of governments - including the United States - when that speech challenges those in power.

The South Korean government has worked hard to keep the web relatively free and open for all sorts of expression, save that related to the North.

But recently it came to light that elements of the government were “monitoring” social media and demanding the removal of posts containing “groundless defamation” of government officials, including President Park Geun-hye. The move has inspired many editorials, including this one in the Korea Times, demanding an end to the web censorship by the government.

“The Internet is a Pandora’s box,” said analyst Ghiai. “Regulation is good, but then you have elements of society that will take advantage of that regulation. We live in a society that we need to have balance.”

The Internet is also a place that fiercely guards freedom of expression, and has time and again proven notoriously difficult to try and control.

“The nature of not censoring the web implies that we, as individuals and societies, make up our own minds about things,” said Internet expert Idir.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.