(Artwork: For Sunday Midday)
A controversial plan to study and profile domestic terrorism was scrapped after popular push back, however, the spirit of the legislation lives on in Senator Joe Lieberman's office.
HR 1955, "The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007" passed the House in October 2007 with almost unanimous support. The bill immediately came under fire from civil liberties watchdogs because of what many saw as a deliberate targeting of Muslims and Arabs and the possible chilling effect it might have on free speech.
The original bill intended to set up a government commission to investigate the supposed threat of domestically produced terrorists and the ideologies that underpin their radicalization. The ten-member commission was to be empowered to "hold hearings and sit and act at such times and places, take such testimony, receive such evidence, and administer such oaths as the Commission considers advisable to carry out its duties." The bill also singled out the Internet as a vehicle for terrorists to spread their ideology with the intention of recruiting and training new terrorists.
After significant public pressure, the bill stalled in the Senate. However, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), the current chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has embraced the thrust of the legislation and has been working to push forward some of the goals of the original bill, including an attempt to weed out terrorist propaganda from the Internet.
Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology has spoken out against the assault on Internet speech. "I have more concern about what Senator Lieberman is doing than about HR 1955. [Lieberman] is no friend of civil liberties," Dempsey told Truthout, adding "there is concern that what he has planned will be worse than HR 1955."
Dempsey spoke out in favor of the spirit of HR 1955, calling the outpouring of criticism "hypothetical and hyperbolic." In his view, the study of radicalization and home grown ideologically based violence is worthwhile. However, he objects to recent actions taken by Lieberman.
On May 19, Lieberman sent a letter to Google Inc.'s CEO Eric Schmidt demanding that Google "immediately remove content produced by Islamist terrorist organizations from YouTube."
"By taking action to curtail the use of YouTube to disseminate the goals and methods of those who wish to kill innocent civilians, Google will make a singularly important contribution to this important national effort," Lieberman wrote.
Google fired back, refusing to take off material that did not violate its community guidelines. "While we respect and understand his views, YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone's right to express unpopular points of view," Schmidt said in response, adding, "we believe that YouTube is a richer and more relevant platform for users precisely because it hosts a diverse range of views, and rather than stifle debate, we allow our users to view all acceptable content and make up their own minds."
Google removed some of the videos that violated their rules against posting violence and hate speech, but made a point to write, "most of the videos, which did not contain violent or hate speech content, were not removed because they do not violate our Community Guidelines."
"I think that Senator Lieberman's actions vis-a-vis Google were improper," Dempsey said. "A blame the messenger approach doesn't make sense as a response to radical violence. The notion that taking the videos off of YouTube will accomplish anything shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet. Take the videos off of YouTube and they'll appear elsewhere."
Senator Lieberman's staff failed to return calls for comment.
A New York Times editorial called Lieberman's claims about the Internet "ludicrous," and warned of an attempt to censor the Internet. Lieberman defended himself in a response letter, saying, "the peril here is not to legitimate dissent but to our fundamental right of self-defense."
According to civil liberties activists, Chairman Lieberman has been spearheading an effort to censor speech on the Internet. His committee recently released a report titled "Violent Islamist Extremism, The Internet, And The Home Grown Terrorism Threat," (PDF) a report detailing the use of web sites and Internet tools to spread pro-terrorism propaganda.
The report repeatedly blames Internet web sites and chat rooms for "radicalization," calling the web sites "portals" through which potential terrorists can "participate in the global violent Islamist movement and recruit others to their cause." As civil liberties groups have pointed out, the report focuses solely on terrorism seen as associated with Islam.
Also, the report relies heavily on experts from inside the US national security apparatus, with only one research study cited. The study by the New York Police Department details a hypothetical four step "radicalization process". The report was criticized by a coalition of civil liberties groups as "statistically and methodologically flawed," in a letter they wrote in response to the report.
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington, DC, legislative office, said that Lieberman "is trying to decide what he thinks should go on the Internet," which, she said, "reeks of an interest in censoring all sorts of different dialogs."
"If someone criticizes Israel's treatment of Palestinians and favors Hamas, should that be censored?" Fredrickson asked.