Can you stop terrorism by policing the websites people visit?

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Is your smartphone spying on you?
Is your smartphone spying on you?

Controlling which websites people are allowed to visit is a cyber crime prevention strategy that takes many forms. Last week, the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, proposed a fairly drastic new approach: prison time for visiting “terrorist” websites. He is quoted by Reuters as saying: "From now on, any person who habitually consults web sites that advocate terrorism, or that call for hatred and violence, will be criminally punished."

This week, Sarkozy got push-back from an organization that he created to advise his government on matters of e-commerce and other electronic areas. The National Digital Council (CNNum) pointed out the difficulties of identifying “a single private user as a repeat user and the right of certain groups, academics are cited, to visit these sites regularly as part of their profession” (ValueWalk).

Sarkozy's fairly drastic announcement came shortly after French authorities killed Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin and the gunman who shot three Jewish children and four adults in southwest France. Horrific as those shootings were, some people see Sarkozy's proclamation as more than just outrage (apart from anything, he is currently up for re-election). The Electronic Frontier Foundation saw it as yet another government seizing an opportunity to impose censorship.

Of course, companies routinely use technology, such as Websense, to stop employees accessing certain categories of website from company computers. There are parental controls in both Mac OS X and Windows 7. But, Sarkozy did not appear to be talking about filtering technology when he said, “Don't tell me it's not possible. What is possible for pedophiles should be possible for trainee terrorists and their supporters, too.”

He was referring to the feasibility of punishing those who go to certain websites too often, given that current French law calls for up to two years in prison and steep fines for those caught repeatedly visiting child pornography websites. Most people in most countries have no problem with that. So, is there anything wrong with imposing stiff penalties for patterns of viewing potentially inflammatory websites involving militant, terrorist-style violence, including imprisonment?

Would this mean you are criminalized if you have no criminal intent, but are just exposed to the content? More specifically, can simply visiting a website, even if you go there multiple times, correlate 100 percent with militant extremist tendencies?

While the definition of “regularly consults” would likely become the subject of vigorous debate, it's also easy to imagine that non-government researchers or watchdog groups in France are regularly monitoring activity on extremist sites, not for nefarious purposes, but for educational purposes. As CNET blogger Dara Kerr pointed out, it is not even clear at this point whether or not Mohamed Merah was a frequent visitor to extremist sites.

For years, technology solutions have sought to refine content controls, a process that involves a more-or-less continual series of finetuning of their filters. But it's hit and miss still, nothing is 100 percent accurate. For example, a relative of mine, when she was in college, was prevented from researching a bird with the proper name of “Blue-footed Booby,” as it triggered the school's content filter. Clearly, this couldn't be construed as intent toward typical subjects that might include the search term “booby,” but alas, the filters can never be 100 percent right.

But to take that control a step further and propose strict penalties, potentially including jail time? Could you execute that policy in a way that was 100 percent foolproof to the level of certainty required? Clearly, Sarkozy is trying to press his stance as being very proactive against an awful series of events that have unfolded in his country, which is easy to understand. Indeed much of the world is horrified by the attacks against peaceful people in France. But will the technology, methodology and government management of this style of crackdown be up to the task of providing the level of proof necessary to justify imprisonment? We'll have to wait and see.

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