A Different Kind of Dot Com Boom

U.S.-designated terrorist group Kata'ib Hezbollah--an Iraqi Shiite militia--has a dot com web address. So does Greek neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn and Hungarian neo-Nazi party Jobbik. Google them. You can peruse their propaganda, and that of others, from the comfort of your home. In some cases, you can even wire them money, through as normalized a service as PayPal.

This reality is unacceptable. In a world where marketing and messaging has all but moved online, we cannot afford extremist groups the legitimacy, commercial potential, and recruitment possibilities attached to a formal web address. When what lies behind these slick digital storefronts are violent extremist groups, we have a responsibility to stand up and say no.

For a year now, the organization I work for--the Counter Extremism Project--has been doing just that, working to disrupt the digital base of extremist recruitment, radicalization, and incitement by pressuring companies like Twitter--which has served as a feeding ground for extremist recruitment--to change their policies. While we've achieved some successes, it is within a culture that persists in downplaying the responsibility of Internet companies to identify and eliminate violent and extremist content from their sites.

Examples abound. In May 2015, when Muhammed Abdullahi Hassan (Twitter alias "Mujahid Miski") incited Garland shooter Elton Simpson to violence online, it came after months of Twitter's failed policy towards Miski, whom CEP had repeatedly highlighted and protested. In August 2015, when U.K.-born ISIS recruiter Raphael Hostey (Twitter alias "Qaqa al-Baritani") issued a lightly veiled call to violence against Australian editor Paul Maley, we flagged the account for Twitter, asking them to take immediate action. The account, including the tweet in question, remained posted for almost 24 hours.

Often, Hostey and other ISIS recruiters are not even guilty of abusing Twitter's standards. On the contrary, they are making full use of Twitter's persistent and failed policy towards terrorism and extremism. For the better part of a year, Hostey and his co-worker Neil Prakash (alias "Abu Khaled al-Cambodi") have used Twitter as the first stop in facilitation to ISIS territory. From there, they and other international recruiters direct recruits to interactive social media sites and later, private messaging accounts. On encrypted messaging services like Kik, Surespot, and Telegram, the next stage of recruitment turns deadly: from propagating extremist ideology and marketing ISIS's lifestyle to practical travel logistics.

It doesn't have to be this way. Since the 1990s, both the government and public demand have helped build safeguards into the Internet, protecting users from abuses as varied as child pornography, spam, and phishing. But these safeguards have not been adequately applied to extremist and terrorist recruitment, despite their similarities. After all, if ISIS recruits an underage child, is that not child abuse? In all seriousness, can anyone consider recruitment to terrorism less dangerous than spam?

When we talk of recruitment to ISIS, we should not divorce that conversation from the responsibility of multi-billion dollar companies that serve as an integral part of that infrastructure. It would be irresponsible to blame the success of ISIS recruiting on the young recruits alone, as if the radicalization process existed in a vacuum.

Today, the government is beginning to apply such pressure, but it is up against major obstacles. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently passed a provision holding social media companies accountable to notify authorities of "terrorist activity" when (and only when) they come across it. The provision does not place any onus on companies to take proactive measures against extremism and terrorism. It does not, for example, require Twitter to bar known recruiter Raphael Hostey from using its site or bar known terrorist IP addresses from creating new accounts. The provision is helpful and yet limited. Nevertheless, social media giants are already fighting it.

This should not discourage us. As consumers and investors, we are in a position to pressure Internet companies--social media sites, messaging services, and even domain providers--to apply the search mechanisms already in place for spam and child pornography to the sphere of extremist recruitment. As U.S. citizens, we can petition our representatives to address this issue. The status quo is broken, but if the public is moved to act, and change the course of the dialogue, we are in a position to fix it.