Sunday, June 08, 2008

Strange Bedfellows

When I think "Internet," I don't immediately think "terrorism," but apparently that's not always true of our elected representatives.

After the disastrous 2006 House Intelligence Committee hearing on "Terrorist Use of the Internet," at which a fan film with a humorous soundtrack was mistakenly shown as key evidence of jihadist digital recruiting techniques, one might hope that lawmakers would refrain from overemphasizing the opportunistic rhetoric of criminality when it comes to characterizing the policy implications of distributed information technologies. Unfortunately that is still not necessarily the case.

I am particularly sorry to see The Simon Wiesenthal Center joining the bandwagon and appearing before Congress with witnesses who are known to have for-profit agendas to further Internet monitoring and filtering. Last month the center sent a witness to testify during a hearing on "Hate in the Information Age" in connection with an "iReport" that they issued on "Online Terror + Hate: The First Decade." As Harvard psychiatric faculty members Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson point out, high profile reports and hearings often give more undeserved publicity to hate games and websites than they would otherwise have. The fact that the "Border Patrol" game is featured on the cover of the Wiesenthal Center report will probably bring more players to the site to shoot at cartoon characters of undocumented workers, players who would not otherwise have this opportunity.

Last November, a Wiesenthal representative appeared at a hearing on "Using the Web as a Weapon: the Internet as a Tool for Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism" before the Committee on Homeland Security.

As a rhetorician, I'd also give low marks to director Mark Weitzman for his bad purple PowerPoint slides, which can be seen in the YouTube video below. (I also note that I don't endorse the conspiratorial sentiments of the poster of this footage on YouTube, although I included it in this blog entry, because I think it's helpful for readers to see the full visual context of Weitzman's oratorical performance that is intended to stir anti-Internet fear.)

Weitzman appeared with Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman, who argued in his statement that DIY production tools were also to blame:

The weapons of terrorism today, accordingly, are no longer simply the guns and bombs that they always have been, but now include the mini-cam and videotape, editing suite and attendant production facilities; professionally produced and mass-marketed CD-Roms and DVDs; and, most critically, the lap-top and desk-top computers, CD burners and e-mail accounts, and Internet and worldwide web.

Hoffman at least was addressing the issue at hand, unlike the horrible self-promoting DOPA-champion Perry Aftab, who I've written about on Virtualpolitik before. Amazingly Aftab isn't content with only banning social networking sites from schools and libraries, despite the fact that such sites are often key for family communication for low-income young people who can't afford long distance telephone calls. According to her statement she seems to suggest that schools should have policies that consider barring "access to any non-educational site from school computers." Of course, this rigid separation of "educational" and "non-educational" digital media flies in the face of the work of many prominent literacy specialists, most obviously James Paul Gee in his work on videogames.

The panel also included Rita Katz of the SITE Institute, a private intelligence-gathering service that has come under fire in a New Yorker article for providing biased translations of anti-US materials from the Middle East. Katz has been very successful generating press for her work. It is interesting to see how a relatively small proportion of Internet traffic can get so much attention in the public sphere. Last month, The New York Times carried two stories about online hate: "Tracking Hate 2.0 on the Web" and "Al Qaeda Warrior Uses Internet to Rally Women."

Part of the context of the November hearing involved the recent almost unanimous passage of H.R. 1955, which has spurred some interesting YouTube videos of opposition, such as this one, which uses an online dictionary as a source, or this one in which the author admits to being inebriated. The revision history of the Wikipedia article on the bill also shows the opinions of a vocal and Internet-savvy minority. In response to some of these objections, the committee has issued a fact sheet.

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