You Can't Kick ISIS Off the Internet, So Why Is a Google Executive Suggesting It?

The head of Google Ideas is promoting a troubled idea.

Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas, is wrong. The former policy planner of the U.S. Department of State is turning heads this week by making a surprising proclamation: We can most effectively fight ISIS by kicking them off the open internet and relegating them to the dark web.

On the surface level, it’s a reasonable idea. The Islamic State notably uses social media and digital technologies to communicate within its organization, to recruit new members to its cause, and to release propaganda. To sever them from these abilities would make their operations markedly more difficult. But looking just one level deeper shows that Cohen’s idea — to ban terrorists from the internet — is unsound for a variety of reasons.

It’s impossible. There is no completely effective way to keep people off the internet. High-tech efforts to do so will waste time, and there’s nothing stopping a blocked ISIS member from using a friend’s unblocked computer or a public computer terminal.

ISIS’s internet activity yields valuable intelligence about their future plans. Just as you might be able to predict a Facebook friend’s status updates and location check-ins after following them long enough, governments monitor ISIS-related channels and harvest information there for the sake of making informed predictions about future terrorist activity. To kick ISIS off the internet is to slam the door on a valuable intelligence resource.

A hypothetical block would validate ISIS’s efforts. While deleting ISIS-related Twitter accounts certainly makes it much more difficult for them to recruit people, it’s also an endorsement of the group’s danger. Such blocks become a badge of honor, and in fact already have; ISIS members are more likely to see their Twitter account deletions as validation, not retribution, writes TechDirt’s Mike Masnick.

Jared Cohen

Paradoxically, the mission behind Google Ideas is to maintain an open internet, supporting “free expression and access to information.” Blanket bans hardly seem to fit with this vision.

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