There has been a recent terror attack in London on the Tube. Homemade explosive devices detonated on a train car, injuring many. This attack was likely either orchestrated or inspired by the so-called Islamic State, and is just another example of its heinous ideology. World leaders have condemned the attack and offered their deepest sympathies to the UK and all the victims. United States President Donald Trump has chosen to take this opportunity to call for the internet to be “cut off.”
Deep Misunderstandings About the Nature of Both Free Speech and the Internet
The recent attack is nothing short of tragic. Acts of terrorism are cowardly, and it will take an international effort to keep everyone safe. However, Donald Trump seems to have found his scapegoat for this attack and is taking no time to move on it. He feels the internet is to blame for this and other terror attacks.
In a series of tweets, Mr Trump suggested Scotland Yard could have prevented the attack, then fixed his sights on what he called a “recruiting pool” for terrorists: the internet. There are a plethora of problems with this statement. The internet is a medium for many things, both legal and illegal. This is the nature of a large network facilitating information sharing. To throw the baby out with the bathwater just because people can do illegal things seems naive and shortsighted. I want to be clear, I have no sympathy for anyone conducting illegal activity online. However, suggesting to “cut off” the internet because of those individuals is ridiculous.
Trump’s statement also suggests that he has very little insight as to what the internet actually is or how it works. How anyone, including a nation as powerful as the United States, could “cut off” the internet is beyond me. It is a network spanning the entire globe and low earth orbit. The only thing that comes to mind would be an outright attack on all servers both foreign and domestic, or the forceful closing of ISPs worldwide. Both of these things are incredibly un-American – not to mention unpractical – things to do. Even if either happened, would we even be able to go back to a time without the internet after having known it and relied on it for our daily lives? How could we live with such a blatant attack on not only convenience and connectivity, but also our freedom of speech?
I really want to try and give Mr. Trump more credit, since I understand the nature of tweets requires brevity. Perhaps 144 characters meant he had to sacrifice some clarity to get a point across. However, it is really hard to believe he does not have an adversarial view of the internet, since this is not the first time he has suggested shutting down the internet in some capacity. In December of last year he suggested closing down the internet. He said he would ask Bill Gates to “close it down” to prevent terrorism recruiting. The fact that he would ask one man to close down the internet further demonstrates his infantile understanding of what the internet is or how it works.
While I wish I could say this impressive lack of understanding means the internet is safe, it still worries me. The internet as a network may be almost impossible to tear down, but freedom of speech is definitely vulnerable. Whether through firewalls, censorship, or disbanding net neutrality, it is entirely possible for nations to limit freedom of speech online.