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The Stack Archive

Shields: Tor, archive.org, WordPress and more aid ‘vile’ terrorist propaganda

Wed 25 Jan 2017

Baroness Joanna Shields, the UK’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, has identified some of the Internet’s most popular resources and sites as bastions of terrorist propaganda, in a speech made in early January.

Besides the obvious targets of social networks Twitter and Facebook, and messaging system Telegram, Shields aimed apparent disapprobation at Google’s YouTube, Google Drive, world-leading content management system WordPress and unspecified ‘file hosting or pasting sites’.

Shields was speaking at the Global Counter Terrorism Forum on January 9th, in a closing speech published today.

The Baroness presents an extraordinarily broad-ranging group of online resources – practically every popular method of self-publishing that doesn’t involve submitting a contribution to an editor for consideration or writing on a napkin – as facilitating tools for terrorist factions.

The speech largely centres on the promise and practice of new and existing international anti-ISIS initiatives and protocols, though the baroness refers to the threat by the more controversial ‘Daesh’ moniker.

Shields refers to UK research into the Daesh/ISIS ‘propaganda ecosystem’, which is said to fall into three categories:

‘[What] we refer to as beacons, like Twitter and Telegram, are used to coordinate and disseminate propaganda to the wider public…aggregators, like file hosting or pasting sites, WordPress [Sic] and social networks like Facebook and Google+ fulfil the function of hosting catalogues of vile propaganda…content stores, like YouTube, archive.org or Google Drive, are sites on which propaganda can be stored.’

Criticism of the TOR browser is rather more oblique in the speech, since its status as a whistleblowing tool (and one which was developed by the U.S. military and is still in active use in the field), and its more specific association with Edward Snowden’s principled NSA data leaks, have lent the browser considerable respect in the technical and even the surveillance community:

‘Of course we cannot focus on Daesh in isolation. Just last night al-Qa’ida released perhaps the most polished version of their English-language magazine al-Risalah, which celebrated the cowardly murder of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov and provided instructions for using the TOR browser to discreetly access terrorist content online.’

It is interesting in particular to see WordPress (which is letting you read this article, incidentally) individuated as a terrorist propaganda tool, since the majority of the West’s professional press has either migrated to the hugely popular CMS or is else at least considering it. It’s rather like blaming paper manufacturers for the resurgent interest in Mein Kampf.

In fact, ISIS has specifically attacked WordPress sites, though presumably because of the content (and the exploit availability) rather than the medium.

(Perhaps the Baroness is actually thinking of WordPress.com, where users can easily sign up to create content without an extensive chain of accountability, such as occurs – usually – when one registers one’s own domain. In this case, the general thrust of the criticism in her speech seems to be against any kind of anonymous or pseudonymous posting at all – another drumbeat towards a ‘real names’ policy that would help the west catch up with Russia and China in the anti-anonymity arms race.)

In the case of archive.org, one might imagine that Shields’ complaint is that content which has been taken down either by governments or by organisations can still be found at the domain, which aims to be the long-term, unerasable memory of the Internet. In fact, the Wayback Machine is apparently used directly by Jihadi activists. Though well-defended on the grounds of open information and free speech, archive.org does respond to requests for the removal of material, from governments and organisations.

In her comprehensive round-up of ordinary technologies that can be abused (by anyone), the Under Secretary seems to have forgotten the Content Delivery Network CloudFlare, which has also been exploited by terrorists.

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