In the 20 years since the terrorist events of 11 September 2001, ever-evolving political, social and economic dynamics globally have had a dramatic impact on the ferocity, scale and reach of terrorism. Continuing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa as well as ongoing efforts by Islamic State (IS) to create a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria have helped perpetuate these dynamics. Rapid technological developments including the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, have connected individuals with terrorist groups in ways inconceivable two decades ago. Combined with the proliferation of affordable and easily accessible personal computing devices, global Internet connectivity has allowed people to become online content creators, publishing sometimes spurious views and sentiments. This occurs without the checks and balances required by mainstream, governed media spaces. In effect, the Internet has allowed anonymised hatred to flourish.
Since the turn of the 21st century, several other key global influences have helped shape the current terrorism environment and accompanying surge in violence that has emerged. The 2008 global financial crisis shook confidence in global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, and saw growing skepticism in globalisation. This, combined with a commensurate rise in highly nationalistic politics and a growing discourse of ‘us versus them’, has encouraged the emergence of extreme fringe groups. These groups, although dispersed and dissimilar in ideological and political values and aims, share a similar modus operandi of inciting violence and/or encouraging acts of terrorism. The reach of these groups and their ability to inspire and motivate others to acts of violence is now far greater because of online connectivity. A recent Australian Parliamentary enquiry into extremist movements and radicalism confirmed the significant factor that online incitement plays in terrorism and radicalisation.
Global connectivity is not necessarily problematic – it also inspires creativity and fuels innovation. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, collaboration by international medical professionals, scientists and researchers led to the development of new vaccines via online information sharing. Greater access to data, and the technology to share and interrogate it, has provided new insights on corruption, abuse, and violence, leading to greater transparency and accountability. However, when it comes to inciting violence and encouraging terrorism, the pervasiveness of the Internet has allowed individuals and groups the ability to promote their expressions of hate virtually unchecked, creating a problematic nexus between online behaviour and offline harms.
Furthermore, the ‘ungovernable’ nature of cyberspace and overlapping issues of jurisdiction, allows terrorist propaganda, disinformation, misinformation and false conspiracy theories to spread, as state and individual actors continue to evade law enforcement and operate with impunity.
What can be done to combat this threat? Rapid technological advancements have considerably outpaced the ability of global agreements or national legislation to effectively ‘cyber govern’. For example, legislative options or mutual assistance agreements have limited use in countries that host ISPs or cloud databases if relevant governments refuse to cooperate with international agreements.
In Australia, approaches to address this issue could include legislating that Australians can only use Australian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and cloud services. ISPs should be required to store the data and holdings within Australia and allow access to the relevant authority to those holdings, when provided with a legal warrant. Government cooperation with ISPs and other tech corporations must continue in earnest to reduce violent rhetoric or incitement of violence and terrorism and to take down inappropriate sites. This might require strengthening legislation allowing Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies the ability to take down sites where propaganda or false conspiracy theories abound. There is also a need for governments to develop and promulgate counter-narratives aimed at myth-busting false conspiracy theories.
Finally, global agreements on cyber governance need to be actively pursued, recognising this is no easy task. Combatting state-sponsored terrorist actions and online propaganda is extremely difficult and requires concerted long-term international consensus and effort. Governments should recognise this will be a never-ending task – one that requires real-time updates to keep pace with technological developments.
Our societies expect real-world safety, openness and transparency to be balanced against freedom of expression, privacy and human rights considerations. This can only be achieved through genuine and ongoing community and stakeholder consultation, to continually assess the legal boundaries society is willing to accept, as new technologies emerge. Our parliaments are designed to look at issues from various points of views, debate the merits of arguments and then determine, based on the prevailing social norms and community expectations, the most suitable legal and policy approach to be taken. This is the least we should expect from our elected officials, to ensure online extremist behaviours are minimised and not converted into real-world harms.