In the wake of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Paris and Brussels and the ongoing fight against ISIS, countering violent extremism (CVE) has become a major policy agenda domestically and internationally. The UN has called on each country to develop its own national strategy, President Obama convened an international CVE summit last year, and throughout the role of the Internet in radicalization and recruitment has been front and center. While governments have a legitimate interest in combatting terrorism, there is discussion about the impact of the CVE agenda on human rights online.
The debate over countering violent extremism online poses critical questions about how to address human rights and legitimate national security interests online. This session will focus on how the various measures being taken in the United States to tackle online ‘extremism’ might impact the ability to enjoy human rights online; the potential impacts for marginalized and at-risk communities, journalists, and activists; and whether those measures are compatible with human rights standards. Are there impacts for at-risk communities, journalists, and activists? How can we find a balance between legitimate law enforcement goals and the needs of communities to enjoy human rights online? What are the responsibilities of companies in an age of international terrorism?
Advocacy Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists
Courtney works at the nexus of media, technology, and rights as the advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists and is the author of a forthcoming report on the impact of countering violent extremism on media development for the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy
Staff Attorney for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Yolanda Rondon is a Staff Attorney for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), where she works on legal cases and policy issues related to surveillance, racial and religious profiling, hate crimes, employment discrimination and immigration.
Director of Analytics, Global Engagement Center
J.D. Maddox is the Director of Analytics at the interagency Global Engagement Center (GEC), housed at the U.S. Department of State. He also is an adjunct professor at George Mason University, where he teaches the graduate course National Security Challenges in the Department of Information Sciences and Technology. Prior to GEC, Mr. Maddox served as a branch chief in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, as an intelligence advisor to the Secretary of Homeland Security, and in operational roles at the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. He has testified to the U.S. Congress, deployed to the Iraq war zone twice, and conducted domestic law enforcement operations. He has been a Director of National Intelligence Galileo Award finalist, he was awarded the Lockheed Martin Star Award for his actions during the 11 September 2001 attacks, and earned the title of U.S. Army Special Operations Command Soldier of the Year (Reserve) in 1999.
Mr. Maddox holds an M.A. from Georgetown University’s National Security Studies Program and a B.A. in philosophy and history of science from St. John’s College, Annapolis. He speaks Urdu, Russian and German.
Matt Mitchell is a security researcher, operational security trainer, and data journalist. Matt leads CryptoHarlem, impromptu workshops teaching basic cryptography tools to the predominately African American community in upper Manhattan. He worked as a data journalist and developer for The New York Times, CNN, Time Inc, and RadioOne/TvOne. Matt currently trains activists & journalists in digital security. Matt recently partnered with the organization, Global Journalist Security to offer digital security training inside newsrooms. His work focuses on marginalized, aggressively monitored, over-policed populations in the United States.
The countering violent extremism (CVE) panel examined the implications of CVE efforts on human rights, specifically in respect to marginalized communities, questioning the premise of balancing law enforcement and human rights, on the grounds that neither should restrict the other in any way.
The panel began with each panelist …. JD Maddox, Director of Analytics for the Global Engagement Center (GEC) began by identifying a key challenge in CVE being the imbalance in adherence to laws and legal norms, where violent extremist groups like ISIL , or ISIS, completely disregard laws, while agencies like the GEC adhere to U.S. law. The GEC’s strategies include proactive efforts to understand and counter violent extremist messaging through direct campaigns and partnership with organizations in other parts of the globe.
Yolanda Rondon, Staff Attorney for the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, raised the issue of the U.S. government inappropriately applying the CVE measures and attempting to use services on the internet as an extension of law enforcement, having certain kinds of speech flagged and removed. Her stance was that the best way to combat hate speech is with more speech. She argued that removal of content will drive extremists to corners of the dark web, where their views are not challenged by opposing opinions, instead of exposing their views to the criticisms and responses of their larger communities.
Matt Mitchell, from CryptoHarlem, talked about the technologies that analyze online content and seek to identify violent or potentially violent extremism. He pointed out that the technology is flawed, in that it cannot properly identify if an extreme view is going to develop into a violent expression, but also that even if that were possible determining the proper action is difficult. He addressed the use of hashes as a means of identifying and censoring certain videos that are deemed inappropriate for certain platforms and reiterated that blocking content through these means are not always a good solution, because it hinders expression and places the debate in the hands of software instead of public debate. Ultimately, he advocated for the use of technology in law enforcement, with the caveat that we understand what it is and isn’t capable of and implement it accordingly.
Carl Schonander, Senior Director of SIIA, provided a business perspective. He explained that under U.S. law, companies, such as social media platforms, are not liable for what is shared over their networks, but that in exchange for the absence of liability there are expectations that companies will assume certain responsibilities, such as taking down violent extremist materials, while continuing to facilitate free speech. He stressed the difficulty of the addressing these issues from the companies perspective and that a variety of approaches He advocated for using annual data collection and analysis to determine the best way forward for companies in developing policies around these responsibilities.
Additionally, the panel raised the issue that there have been only 250 identified cases of people inspired by ISIL to travel since 2012, despite all of the funding and efforts dedicated to the issues, the unjust censorship of legitimate journalistic content as an unintended result of seeking to filter out violent extremist content, the danger in taking down certain types of content and the potential for other governments or interest groups to abuse that process to circumvent the probable cause that is required to have content through the legal framework.
Moreover, Yolanda expressed that the idea that the root cause of violent extremism is not the content itself, but the violation of human rights and that certain CVE measures, such as private companies censoring content, are actually disregarding human rights principles, compounding the problem. When asked, how to address the role and strategy that companies need to take in tackling this issue, Carl stressed that the most important practices that companies can take are engagement of different stakeholders and transparency.
Additional issues addressed were the different approaches taken by the U.S. and Europe and their respective effectiveness, including the the code of conduct agreement reached between tech companies and European governments.
The issue of CVE is a difficult one to address and there is a lack of data and research on what strategies and tactics are most effective, or whether CVE measures are effective at all. While there is obviously a consensus that violent extremism is bad, there is no such agreement on how to effectively deal with the problem. On one side of the spectrum, some advocate for allowing ideas to freely flow on the internet, enabling debate and discussion to be the countering measure. Others would argue that it is important to find and remove this content, because it is leading to violent expression of radical ideas. At the nexus of these disagreement are companies, such as social media providers that are on the frontlines and are forced to make a decision on which approach to take. Despite the differing opinions, all parties share the same objective of preventing violent extremism and there needs to be more research put into how this common goal can be achieved.
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