Reader’s Digest – 21 August 2020

Our weekly review of articles on terrorist and violent extremist use of the internet, counterterrorism, digital rights, and tech policy.


Top Stories

  • The Centre of Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR), with support from the University of North Carolina (UNC) has released a dataset “Racially and Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremist and Targeted Violence Arrests 2011-2020”. The dataset lists a total of 550 rows of data on US arrests linked to individuals inspired by “white supremacist, nationalist, accelerationist, and male supremacist ideological cultures and groups.” You can access the dataset here.

  • CARR has also released a new report,  “Faces” of the Radical Right, which provides a comprehensive overview of the radical right, its expansion, and transnational influence.

  • On Wednesday, Twitter introduced its new Transparency Center, centralising all disclosed data and information on transparency in one place, as well as new policy categories. Twitter has also announced that its transparency reports will now be published in 7 languages, in addition to English.

  • Facebook has announced a policy update to tackle movements that do not directly engage in organising violence, but have displayed support for violent action. The move will target these groups’ ability to organise on the platform. This update includes action against QAnon, for which Facebook says to have thus far  “removed over 790 groups, 100 Pages and 1,500 ads tied to QAnon from Facebook, blocked over 300 hashtags across Facebook and Instagram, and additionally imposed restrictions on over 1,950 Groups and 440 Pages on Facebook and over 10,000 accounts on Instagram.”

Islamist Terrorism

  • The looming influx of foreign fighters in Sub-Saharan Africa: Austin C. Doctor sheds light on the acceleration of armed conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how it is opening the door for an influx of foreign fighters (FFs). Doctor sees conflicts in the region as driven by “the steady propagation of Islamist insurgency, escalating inter-militant competition, and fallout from the pandemic”. He underlines how Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming the new front of transnational Islamist terrorism, with al-Qaeda maintaining a strong presence and the Islamic State (IS) gaining ground, which results in a mix of deeply local insurgencies with strong transnational links. With more groups active in the region, there is also growing competition between them, which in turn creates an incentive for them to recruit FFs. The Covid-19 crisis has also rendered States’ legitimacy more fragile and reduced resources normally allocated for border security, thereby creating gaps that terrorists exploit and making it easier for FFs to travel in the region. Doctor underlines that FFs are not a new phenomenon in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the looming flux might see a larger number of fighters arriving from countries outside Africa, with many of them likely to be battle-hardened and experienced veterans from other conflict zones. Doctor concludes that an influx of FFs risks rendering insurgent groups more resilient and increase the level of violence on civilians, and calls for increased research on FFs in the region to help inform effective countermeasures. (Austin C. Doctor, War on the Rocks, 18.08.2002)

Counterterrorism

  • Feds announce largest seizure of cryptocurrency connected to terrorism: Cyrus Farivar reports on what federal law enforcement officials in the US have called the “largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency” used to fund terrorism. The seizure targeted different Islamist terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as the Al-Qassam Brigades – the armed branch of Hamas, which described bitcoin as being as “untraceable” when calling for donations from their supporters. However, Farivar reminds us that Bitcoin, as other cryptocurrencies, are more “pseudonymous” than “fully anonymous”. (Cyrus Farivar, NBC News 13.08.2020)

  • To know more about this joint operation with ChainanalysisDepartment of Justice announces takedown of two terrorism financing campaigns with help from blockchain analysis

  • The challenges of a new UN Security Council resolution on foreign fighters: As the UN Security Council is negotiating a new resolution on foreign fighters (FFs), which would be legally binding for States under Chapter VII  of the UN Charter, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin – Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights – provides her perspective on the most pressing issues for the resolution to consider. Grounding her argument on the rule of law, she calls for the resolution to address the question of repatriation as a rule of law based response to FFs and to the related humanitarian crisis in northeast Syria and in Iraq. She also raises the issue of prosecution, especially fair trial and due process, whilst arguing that the resolution should acknowledge transnational justice measures as a complement to prosecution. On the question of children’s rights, she calls for the recognition of “the status of children as victims of terrorism”, and for adequate measures to protect them from harms and criminal sanctions. Finally, she hopes for the resolution to have a positive impact by reversing “the negative cycle of counter-terrorism resolutions” that has, in Ni Aoilain’s view, failed to acknowledge States’ human right obligations. (Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Just Security, 17.08.2020)

Tech Policy

  • Internet platforms should exercise their own free expression to protect democracy: In light of the recent debate around tech platforms’ powers and responsibilities with regard to the spread of political disinformation online, and the potential revocation or restructuring of Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act – which protects tech companies’ from liability for the content posted by users on their platforms – Eileen Donahoe, Executive Director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, suggests seven principles to reframe the debate on what free expression entails for tech platforms. These principles call for tech platforms to take on the responsibility they have as promoters and curators of content to ensure that the “expression of the democratic will of the people in an election” is protected from disinformation. Donahoe argues that disinformation risks undermining users’ right to free expression by impacting the flow of information, and therefore tech platforms should use their own right to free expression to actively counter this phenomenon. She also emphasises that “the responsible exercise of platform rule-making authority in support of democracy” should not be undermined by policymakers, but encouraged through transparency and accountability mechanisms. (Eileen Donahoe, The Hill, 15.08.2020)

  • The Digital Services Act: An opportunity to build human rights safeguards into notice and action: With discussions on the Digital Services Act (DSA) ongoing at EU level, Emma Llansó of the Center for Democracy and Technology dwells on the current notice-and-takedown system guiding removal of illegal online content in the EU, and address some of its key issues. Broadly speaking, this system protects online intermediaries from liability for content posted on their platforms if they comply with certain procedures – mostly the removal of illegal content once notified – and serves as a framework in the EU with member states having leeway in its implementation. Overall, Llansó argues for further clarity on who should make the notification and on what constitutes a valid notice. Indeed, she notes that as online platforms receive notifications from various sources, the adjudication of illegality should only be made by an independent arbiter, a court for instance, in order to safeguard rule of law. Llansó also stresses that there is a risk of systematic abuse of the notice system, as well as for some notices to be made in “bad faith”. For these reasons, she emphasises the importance of “counter-notice procedures” for users to challenge the removal of their content, and thus claims on the illegality of their speech. Llansó concludes by stressing the importance of transparency and by calling for both platforms and governments to publish regular transparency reports on legal demands for content removals. (Emma Llansó, GNI Blog, 17.08.2020)