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Should visitors to Islamic State sites face punishments like fines or jail time?

A prominent US law professor proposes criminalizing online terrorist material as we do child abuse imagery.

In the US, it was called Operation Avalanche. In the UK, its name was Operation Ore.

Results of the two operations: the identification of thousands of suspects involved in the trafficking of child abuse images, thousands of homes searched, thousands of arrests, thousands of charges being brought, thousands of convictions, hundreds cautioned, and more than a hundred children removed from suspected dangerous situations.

None of this is new: not the surveillance tactics, not the sting, not the idea of going after people who access these types of sites.

After all, such content isn’t protected by free-speech laws.

On Tuesday, University of Chicago Professor Eric Posner, the fourth most-cited law professor in the US as of May 2014, proposed that we start treating terrorist propaganda similarly.

From Posner’s article on Slate:

Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions.

Such a law would be directed at people like [Ali] Amin: naïve people, rather than sophisticated terrorists, who are initially driven by curiosity to research ISIS on the Web.

Posner’s reference is to Ali Amin, the subject of a recent article in the New York Times about how naive Americans get drawn into Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.

Posner:

Lonely and bored, the 17-year-old Virginia resident discovered ISIS online, was gradually drawn into its messianic world, eventually exchanged messages with other supporters and members, and then provided some modest logistical support to ISIS supporters (instructing them how to transfer funds secretly and driving an ISIS recruit to the airport).

He was convicted of the crime of material support of terrorism and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Amin did not start out as a jihadi; he was made into one.

This is the threat represented by naive people like Amin, Posner says:

Using their own websites, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms, [terrorists] lure young men and women to their mission - without having to risk the capture of foreign agents on U.S. soil. The Americans ensnared in ISIS's net in turn radicalize others, send money to ISIS, and even carry out attacks.

Never before in our history have enemies outside the United States been able to propagate genuinely dangerous ideas on American territory in such an effective way - and by this I mean ideas that lead directly to terrorist attacks that kill people.

And here is Posner’s proposed “new thinking” about limiting freedom of speech in order to address the threat: introduce laws with graduated penalties that start out with a warning letter from the government and escalate to fines or prison sentences for those who view Islamic State-related websites.

This is not about targeting the sophisticated terrorists who’ve mastered encrypted communications, Posner says.

Rather, it’s about intercepting people like 17-year-old Amin, who get drawn into online relationships by recruiters after doing things like running a casual online search for more information.

Posner:

When people discover ISIS websites and circulate them by Twitter, Facebook, and other public websites, those people often disclose their identities. Many are too naïve to use pseudonyms; others reveal their identities to their ISPs, which can be forced to cough them up to police.

Teenagers who are curious about ISIS but not yet committed to it are unlikely to use complicated encryption technologies to mask their identities from ISPs. Laws directed at this behavior would make a dent in recruitment, and hence in homegrown radicalism, even if they do not solve other problems.

As word spread, people like Amin “would be discouraged from searching for ISIS-related websites and perhaps be spared radicalization and draconian punishment for more serious terrorism-related crimes,” Posner suggests.

As far as legitimate research goes, the law would contain exemptions for those who can demonstrate a legitimate interest in viewing Islamic State websites, including journalists, academics, private security agencies and the like.

Posner suggests that to prove their “legitimate” interest, such people might be required to present documentation such as press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, or employment in a security agency.

That aspect might prove problematic.

David Rothman, founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of LibraryCity.org, writes that even a published writer such as himself can’t convince the government of his bona fides:

I’m a lifelong liberal Democrat and Obama supporter, I’ve appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Nation and even its philosophical opposite, National Review… but the White House switchboard would not even connect me to the press office when I was seeking possible comment on library-related matters.

There are also security researchers such as those affiliated with Ghost Security Group who work anonymously to infiltrate terrorists’ online sites in order to gather intelligence and thwart attacks.

If Posner’s suggestion were to bear legislative fruit, would researchers like GhostSec have to give up their credentials in a bureaucratic manner that would risk exposing their identities and jeopardizing their operations, or would they quietly be given a pass?

What legal hurdles would be faced by a law against viewing terrorist sites online?

Posner says the obvious problem would be that it could be struck down on First Amendment grounds, given that it would interfere with the right of people to receive or read political information, as would proposed laws that would require internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter to remove Islamic State-related propaganda from their websites.

Child abuse imagery, terrorist recruitment sites: should they both be deemed similarly criminal to access?

Does it approach thought crime, or is it justifiable in the light of current events?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image of Sign courtesy of Shutterstock.com

15 Comments

Punishing people for clicking on links without knowing beforehand what the link leads to sounds like a terrible idea.

Punish those who share links to the illegal material with the intention of recruiting people. Provide psychological help to those who are deliberately seeking out the illegal material. Work to get the illegal material taken down; if you can’t, as a last resort, order ISPs to block it. But don’t punish people who accidentally access a “prohibited” site.

If this becomes law, I predict a dark new twist on “Rickrolling”, where trolls post obfuscated links to terrorist sites, and everyone who clicks on the link gets fined or jailed.

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This proposed law is not necessary to protect US citizens from harm, and it is destructive of the values that America once stood for.

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I don’t believe that any websites or information should be withheld from the public. and if we truly start going down this path we will loose the thing that makes us great in the first place; Freedom. To me this looks like another shortcut by law enforcement. instead of doing there job and looking into people that are visiting these sites, they want to make even visiting them illegal. plus what happens when a 12 year old learns about ISIS for the first time and looks them up on the internet (like a 12 year old would)? Knowledge = power.

or we could just go back to the days of book burning. as far as i can tell its the same thing.

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We censor things, it’s been proven in the past prohibition cause more problems and the stuff still gets out. If you click on a link and “then you’re in jail” because you visited there. Keep the criminal system out of our civil system as much as possible if there is no violence. Talking about violence isn’t. I was pretty upset, searching for a drawing of Buddha and found a 17 year old Christian girl with her head lobbed off. This is pure pornography, I’d rather see people having sex than body parts, yet it’s OK?. Legislature cannot even define pornography, let alone write legislation that’s functional. Lets not.

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“The law would contain exemptions for those who can demonstrate a legitimate interest in viewing Islamic State websites, including journalists, academics, private security agencies and the like”. I do not fall in those categories, but I *do/could* fall in the category “doing things like running a casual online search for more information”. And then I would be doing something illegal??? Ridiculous.

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No we don’t need laws regarding this. The laws that prohibit the support of terrorists are all we need. You don’t need to step into the realm of making reading illegal, because this is necessary for research. Seeing what the enemy looks like is not a way of supporting them. As soon as you do something like donate or assist terrorists, then you are providing support. Those laws are sufficient. Do not go down the road of restricting the 1st amendment. It is unnecessary. If you do, tomorrow it will be to throw in jail those that speak out against our own government. Imagine getting thrown in jail for suggesting that illegal immigrants should not be deported. You know, speaking about and providing support to criminals in the USA. It’s JAIL TIME FOR YOU! That’s where you go when your government wants to control what you see or say.

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I disagree with the article. Restricting the reading of certain information does not make people want to avoid it. What it does is make the information more exciting and actually encourages some people to search it out. If I read propaganda my reaction is to search for more information and try to determine, for myself, its truthfulness.

My assumption is that Mr. Posner is taking an extreme position to encourage discussion.

Also, I am opposed to the idea that people who choose “journalism” as a career are allowed to do things that I’m not.

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To me this is just like the push to get the Anarchist Cookbook and other controversial books off the internet and out of our Libraries. Violates Freedom of Speech and Expression. I do not support this, but for those who continually frequent the sites then maybe.

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The only thing this would do is cause more people to join. What you can’t see causes more curiosity. I’m more for showing what they do to people who don’t do what they say. Show the unglorified side of them and less people will do what they say.

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Anyone seeking knowledge has a legitimate right under the democratic laws of our nations to access that information. Once you start drawing lines and boxes that can’t be crossed or accessed, then we are taking major strides backwards in human evolution and freedom. The tools exist for the terrorist hunters, there are too many possibilities for innocents to be branded terrorists just for having a thirst for knowledge.

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The problem with laws such as the patriot and other countries self protection is that it makes criminals out of Joe citizen. Government rather play the PC card than target the demographic. The other consideration is that the as Lenin said a sympathizer who remains hidden is with more than a soldier. Then consider that there is no way of tracking the latter if such laws are past. To top that criminals always find a work around.

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Sorry Mr. Posner, I must dissagree. Especially for those “who work anonymously to infiltrate terrorists’ online sites in order to gather intelligence and thwart attacks”.

As well as being just plain bad thinking. This kind of ‘Knee Jerk” reaction will only cause more problems than it solves by inciting those targeted by these laws even more.

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No one should be prosecuted for anything except a violent action. Anyone should be able to view materials of any kind and see what all the fuss is about. If I go to Syria and behead NGO volunteers, that’s a different story. If I start accumulating weapons and plan a domestic attack, that’s a different story. But if I read ISIS propaganda out of any personal motivation (including curiosity) or happen to agree narrowly with an ISIS view on, say, the destructive effect of the United States’ military presence in the Middle East, those should be protected. Posner reminds me that “western democracy” is greatly overrated — because any time there is a crisis, civil liberties are the first thing @$$wipes like Posner propose.

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