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Leslie Harris and John Morris Headshot

We've Met the Enemy and it is the Messenger

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Last week, Senator Joe Lieberman took another step backward in America's "war on terrorism," by demanding that YouTube censor hundreds of videos allegedly posted by Islamic terrorists groups. And when the Google-owned video site responded by promptly removing a large number of those videos, which violated its guidelines against content containing hate speech and violence, he insisted that action was " not enough."

What would be "enough" in the Senator's estimation? Simply the removal of all the tainted videos, even those that were plainly constitutionally protected advocacy, albeit abhorrent, and a plan "to prevent the content from reappearing."

While it is hard to disagree with the Senator's sentiment that "protecting our citizens from terrorist attacks is a top priority for our government," it's equally hard to find anything else in his breathtaking letter with which to agree.

Civil liberties continue to be an ongoing casualty in our efforts against terrorism with our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy taking the greatest hit. But so far, broad censorship of the Internet has not taken root as a viable anti-terrorism strategy in the United States. But censorship is exactly the path we would take if Google -- or for that matter any site that posted user content -- acceded to Lieberman's demand that content be reviewed before posting; it would not only violate free speech, it would stop the Internet in its tracks.

There are thousands of videos posted on YouTube alone each day and many more on similar user-driven video sites throughout the Internet. U.S. law wisely provides protection from liability if content that is posted turns out to be illegal. The system we have devised, in which online services establish rigorous terms of service and enforce them against users, is wise one. Users help police the system and sites that are notified of potentially offensive content generally review the material against their terms of service and take down content that violates the rules. In the spirit of such self-policing, Lieberman's request to review specific videos is a fair one, but demanding ongoing review of all videos, and removal of those that don't meet with self-selected criteria, crosses the line.

In the United States online service providers are not government gatekeepers. They do not review content before it is posted to ensure that it originates with entities that are acceptable to the government, nor do they attempt to parse which videos or blog postings cross the line between highly objectionable advocacy and illegal incitement to violence. Prior review of user content -- as Lieberman demanded -- is not just unworkable, it would write an end to the Internet's essential openness and with it the medium's promise to empower ordinary people.

Take a step backs and place Lieberman's letter in a larger context and the message is startlingly clear: the medium is not the messenger; it's the enemy.

For the last year Congress has been making the Internet an increasing focus of its anti-terrorism activities. First, the Senate Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Senator Lieberman, recently issued a report called "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat," which identifies the Internet as a vehicle for promoting radicalization and terrorism. Second, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which has already passed the House, specifically finds that the Internet "aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist- related propaganda to United States citizens."

Congress can take away two diametrically opposed lessons from these findings. The first is that the Internet is an essential communications tool that America and its allies should learn to better use to disseminate messages that build understanding, counter terrorism, and tout our values and our liberties. The other, foreshadowed by Senator Lieberman's demand to Google, is to fight terrorism by censoring or regulating the Internet and destroying our first freedom in the process.

Ironically, while Lieberman's letter was being delivered to Google, a Senate panel on Human Rights was hearing testimony on the growing threats to global Internet freedom from repressive regimes. Some, like Cuba and Myanmar, block citizen access to the Internet altogether; others, like China, have built a network of gatekeepers to ensure that content that challenges the government's official messages is blocked and citizens are easily surveilled.

From that hearing, one message resonated above all: that the United States government has to play a leadership role on global Internet freedom and use all the instruments at its disposal to ensure that the Internet remain open, innovative and free, and that a necessary first step is to carefully guard Internet freedom at home. The world still looks to the United States, whether for guidance or for self-justification.

When it comes to Internet freedom, the U.S. Congress cannot be at odds with itself, advocating Internet freedom with one voice and calling for censorship with another. Congress must make a clear choice in favor of Internet freedom and convey that choice in all of its words and actions. To do any less not only undermines our fundamental freedoms, it provides political cover for online tyranny worldwide.

Leslie Harris is President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology; John Morris is General Counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology