Should governments block terrorist Web sites?

Below is an excerpt from the CQ Global Researcher issue on "Terroism and the Internet" by Barbara Mantel, November, 2009

Many of those who think the Internet is a major terrorist recruiting tool say authorities should simply shut down terrorists' sites.

Often the call comes from politicians. “It is shocking the government has failed to shut down a single Web site, even though Parliament gave them that power,” Britain's opposition security minister, Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, said last March. “This smacks of dangerous complacency and incompetence.” [Footnote 16]

In France, a minister for security said she wanted to stop terrorist propaganda on the Internet. [Footnote 17] And a European Commission official called for a Europe-wide prohibition on Web sites that post bomb-making instructions. [Footnote 18]

Although governments have shut down terrorist Web sites when they felt the information posted was too great a threat, some critics say such a move is legally complicated, logistically difficult and unwise.

Last year, three of the most important discussion forums used by Islamist terrorist groups disappeared from the Internet, including, which had posted the six-part training manual. Jordanian terrorism expert Bakier says counterterrorism officials were so worried about the site that he “used to get requests from concerned agencies to translate the exact texts posted on that were referenced in my articles. It was that serious.”

“It is widely assumed that Western intelligence agencies were responsible for removing the three sites,” and probably without the cooperation of the Internet service providers (ISPs) that host the sites, says Neumann, of King's College. “It would have required the cooperation of all the ISPs in the world,” because those Web sites were not accessible at all, he explains. Instead, he thinks intelligence agencies may have launched so-called denial-of-service attacks against the sites, bombarding them with so many requests that they crashed. This September, one of the sites resurfaced; however, many experts believe it is a hoax. [Footnote 19]

But government takedowns of terrorist sites — by whatever method — are not common, say many researchers. First, there are concerns about free speech.

“Who is going to decide who is a terrorist, who should be silenced and why?” asks Haifa University's Weimann. “Who is going to decide what kind of Web site should be removed? It can lead to political censorship.”

Concern about free speech may be more acute in the United States than elsewhere. Current U.S. statutes make it a crime to provide “material support” — including expert advice or assistance — to organizations designated as terrorist groups by the State Department. [Footnote 20] However, the First Amendment guarantee of free speech may trump the material support provisions.

“Exceptions to the First Amendment are fairly narrow” says Ian Ballon, an expert on Internet law practicing in California. “Child pornography is one, libelous or defamatory content another. There is no terrorism exception per se.” Words that would incite violence are clearly an exception to the First Amendment, he says, “but there is a concept of immediacy, and most terrorism sites would not necessarily meet that requirement.” A 1969 Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, held that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is inciting or likely to incite imminent lawless action. [Footnote 21]

In Europe, where free-speech rights are more circumscribed than in the United States, the legal landscape varies. Spain, for instance, outlaws as incitement “the act of performing public ennoblement, praise and/or justification of a terrorist group, operative or act,” explains Raphael Perl, head of the Action Against Terrorism Unit at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security organization with 56 member nations, based in Vienna, Austria. And the U.K. passed the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006, which make it an offense to collect, make or possess material that could be used in a terrorist act, such as bomb-making manuals and information about potential targets. The 2006 act also outlaws the encouragement or glorification of terrorism.Footnote 22 Human Rights Watch says the measure is unnecessary, overly broad and potentially chilling of free speech. [Footnote 23]

Yet, it does not appear that governments are using their legal powers to shut down Web sites. “I haven't heard from any ISP in Europe so far that they have been asked by the police to take down terrorist pages,” says Michael Rotert, vice president of the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA).

For one thing, says Rotert, there is no common, legal, Europe-wide definition of terrorism. “We are requesting a common definition,” he says, “and then I think notice and takedown procedures could be discussed. But right now, such procedures only exist for child pornography.”

But even if a European consensus existed on what constitutes terrorism, the Internet has no borders. If an ISP shuts down a site, it can migrate to another hosting service and even register under a new domain name.

Instead of shutting down sites, some governments are considering filtering them. Germany recently passed a filtering law aimed at blocking child pornography, which it says could be expanded to block sites that promote terrorist acts. And Australia is testing a filtering system for both child pornography and material that advocates terrorism.

The outcry in both countries, however, has been tremendous, both on technical grounds — filtering can slow down Internet speed — and civil liberties grounds. “Other countries using similar systems to monitor Internet traffic have blacklisted political critics,” wrote an Australian newspaper columnist. “Is this really the direction we want our country to be heading? Communist China anyone? Burma? How about North Korea?” [Footnote 24]

Ultimately, filtering just may not be that effective. Determined Internet users can easily circumvent a national filter and access banned material that is legal elsewhere. And filtering cannot capture the dynamic parts of the Internet: the chat rooms, video sharing sites and blogs, for instance.

Even some governments with established filtering laws seem reluctant to remove terrorist sites. The government owns Singapore's Internet providers and screens all Web sites for content viewed as “‘objectionable’ or a potential threat to national security.” [Footnote 25] Yet Osman, of the Nanyang Technological University, says the government is not blocking Web sites that support terrorism. “I can still get access to many of them,” she says, “so a lot of other people can, too.”

In fact, counterterrorism officials around the world often prefer to monitor and infiltrate blogs, chat rooms, discussion forums and other Web sites where terrorists and sympathizers converse. If the sites remain active, they can be mined for intelligence.

“One reason [for not shutting down sites] is to take the temperature, to see whether the level of conversation is going up or down in terms of triggering an alert among security agencies,” says Anthony Bergin, director of research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Another purpose is to disrupt terrorist attacks, says Bergin. Just recently, the violent postings of Texas resident Hosan Maher Husein Smadi to an extremist chat room attracted the attention of the FBI, which was monitoring the site. Agents set up a sting operation and arrested the 19-year-old Jordanian in late September after he allegedly tried to detonate what he thought was a bomb, provided by an undercover agent, in the parking garage beneath a Dallas skyscraper. [Footnote 26]


[16] Clodagh Hartley, “Govt Can't Stop ‘Web of Terror,’” The Sun (England), March 20, 2009, p. 2.

[17] “Interview given by Mme. Michèle Alliot-Marie, French Minister of the Interior, to Le Figaro,” French Embassy, Feb 1, 2008.

[18] Greg Goth, “Terror on the Internet: A Complex Issue, and Getting Harder,” IEEE Computer Society, March 2008.

[19] Howard Altman, “Al Qaeda's Web Revival,” The Daily Beast, Oct. 2, 2009.

[20] Gregory McNeal, “Cyber Embargo: Countering the Internet Jihad,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, vol. 39, no. 3, 2007–08, p. 792.

[21] Brandenburg v. Ohio.

[22] “Safeguarding Online: Explaining the Risk Posed by Violent Extremism,” op. cit., p. 3.

[23] Elizabeth Renieris, “Combating Incitement to Terrorism on the Internet: Comparative Approaches in the United States and the United Kingdom and the Need for an International Solution,” Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, vol. 11:3:673, 2009, pp. 687–688.

[24] Fergus Watts, “Caught out by net plan,” Herald Sun (Australia), Dec. 29, 2008, p. 20.

[25] Weimann, op. cit., p. 180.

[26] “Jordanian accused in Dallas bomb plot goes to court,” CNN, Sept. 25, 2009.


For more information see the CQ Global Researcher report on "Terrorism and the Internet" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Global Researcher PDF