Rebecca MacKinnon: We can fight terror without sacrificing our rights

There's a big question at the center of life in our democracies today: How do we fight terror without destroying democracies, without trampling human rights?

I've spent much of my career working with journalists, with bloggers, with activists, with human rights researchers all around the world, and I've come to the conclusion that if our democratic societies do not double down on protecting and defending human rights, freedom of the press and a free and open internet, radical extremist ideologies are much more likely to persist.

OK, all done. Thank you very much. No, just joking.

I actually want to drill down on this a little bit.

So, one of the countries that has been on the frontlines of this issue is Tunisia, which was the only country to come out of the Arab Spring with a successful democratic revolution. Five years later, they're struggling with serious terror attacks and rampant ISIS recruitment. And many Tunisians are calling on their government to do whatever it takes to keep them safe.

Tunisian cartoonist Nadia Khiari has summed up the situation with this character who says, "I don't give a damn about human rights. I don't give a damn about the revolution. I don't give a damn about democracy and liberty. I just want to be safe."

"Satisfied?" asked his jailer. "You're safe now."

If the Tunisian people can figure out how to deal with their terrorism problem without ending up in this place, they will be a model not only for their region, but for all of us.

The reality is that civil society, journalists and activists are coming under attack from extremist groups on the one hand, and, in many countries, also from their own governments. We're seeing bloggers and journalists being jailed, charged and intimidated by their own governments, many of which are allies with the West in the war on terror.
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Just three examples. A friend and former colleague of mine, Hisham Almiraat, has been charged with threatening state security, along with six other activists in Morocco. The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has been jailed and flogged for insulting Islam and criticizing the Saudi regime on his blog. More recently, the Turkish representative for Reporters Without Borders, Erol ├ľnderoglu, has been detained and charged with spreading terrorist propaganda, because he and some other activists have been supporting Kurdish media.

Anti-terror measures quickly turn into state repression without strong protection for minority communities and for peaceful debate; this needs to be supported by a robust, independent local media.

But while that's not really happening, Washington is teaming up with Silicon Valley and with Hollywood to pour millions -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- into what's called "counter-messaging," a fancy word for propaganda. To counter the terrorist propaganda spreading all over the internet, in Europe, Internet Referral Units are being set up, so that people can report on extremist content that they find and get it censored. The problem is, that all of this propaganda, monitoring and censorship completely fails to make up for the fact that the people who are the most credible voices, who can present credible ideas and alternative solutions to real economic, social and political problems in their community that are causing people to turn to extremism in the first place, are being silenced by their own governments.

This is all adding up to a decrease in freedom across the world. Freedom House, the human rights organization, reports that 2015 marks the 10th straight year in a row of decline in freedom worldwide. And this is not just because of the actions of authoritarian governments. It's also because democratic governments are increasingly cracking down on dissenters, whistle-blowers and investigative journalists. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has warned that "preventing extremism and promoting human rights go hand-in-hand." It's not to say that governments shouldn't keep us safe -- of course they should -- but we need public oversight, transparency and accountability to the rule of law. Meanwhile, extremists are literally killing off civil society in some countries. Since 2013 in Bangladesh, over a dozen secular bloggers and community activists have been literally slaughtered by extremists while the government has done very little. From the city of Raqqa in Syria, people like Ruqia Hassan and Naji Jerf have been assassinated for their reporting out of ISIS-controlled territory.

The citizen media group called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently relies on strong encryption to send out their reports and shield themselves from interception and surveillance. Yet authorities in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and many other democracies are seeking to use the law to either weaken or outright ban strong encryption, because the bad guys are using it, too. We have got to fight for the right of citizens to use strong encryption. Otherwise, dissent and investigative journalism are going to become even more difficult in even more places. And the bad guys -- the criminals and terrorists -- are still going to find ways to communicate. Kudos to the companies that are standing up for their users' right to use encryption.

But when it comes to censorship, the picture is much more troubling. Yes, there's a real problem of extremist content spreading all over the internet. And Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are among the many companies who report having taken down hundreds of thousands of pieces of content and deactivating accounts that are connected to the extremist's speech. The problem is their enforcement mechanisms are a complete black box, and there is collateral damage.

Take, for example, Iyad el-Baghdadi, an activist who makes fun of ISIS on Twitter. He had his account deactivated, because he shares a surname with a prominent ISIS leader. Last December, a number of women named Isis, which also happens to be the name of an Egyptian goddess, had their accounts deactivated. And this woman, who lives in the United States and is a computer programmer, reported on Twitter about her deactivation on Facebook, managed to get enough media attention to have her account reinstated. But that's the thing -- she had to get media attention. And journalists aren't immune. David Thomson, an expert on terrorism and reporter for Radio France International, had reports deleted from his Facebook account and had his account deactivated for several days, because they contained pictures of ISIS flags, even though he was just reporting on ISIS, not promoting it.

And then we have stories from people like this Egyptian man, Ahmed Abdellahy, who reported recently in an event in Washington DC that some of his arguments with extremists -- he now spends his time on social media arguing with ISIS followers, trying to get them to turn away -- some of his arguments with these extremists get deleted, which he believes has the effect of shielding them from alternative points of view.

It's unclear whether Facebook even knows the extent of the collateral damage, or the other companies as well. But we do know that journalism, activism and public debate are being silenced in the effort to stamp out extremist speech.

So with these companies having so much power over the public discourse, they need to be held accountable. They need to carry out impact assessment to identify and fix the problems that we're clearly seeing. They need to be more transparent about their enforcement mechanisms, and they need to have clear appeal and grievance mechanisms, so people can get their content reinstated.

Now, I've been talking for the last 10 minutes about how governments and companies are making it more difficult for people like these. This is a picture of members of the citizen media network, Global Voices, that I helped to cofound over 10 years ago with my friend, Ethan Zuckerman. Interestingly, about 5 years ago, right after the Arab Spring, the data scientist Gilad Lotan created a network map of the people in Global Voices who were heavy users of Twitter during the Arab Spring. And he found that many of these people served as key information nodes between activists and journalists throughout the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution. We've got to make sure that these people not only survive, but are able to continue to thrive. Many of them are still active, other than the ones who have gone to jail or have been driven into hiding or exile.

All around the world, people who are sick and tired of fear and oppression are linking up in their communities and across borders. We've got to do everything we can to push our governments and companies to do a better job of protecting their rights. We've also got to be more mindful about how our own personal, political, consumer and business choices affect people like these around the world. Also, if you follow the news, it's pretty clear that that alone isn't going to be enough. We've got to take personal responsibility by joining -- or at very least, actively supporting -- the growing ecosystem of individuals and groups who are fighting for social justice, environmental sustainability, government accountability, human rights, freedom of the press and a free and open internet, all around the world.

I believe that, ultimately, we can overcome the digitally empowered networks of extremism, demagoguery and hate. But ... we've got to do this by really beefing up the global networks of citizens around the world, powered by people who are working hard every day, and taking personal risk for a future world that is more peaceful, just, open and free.

Thanks very much for listening.