It has been brought to my attention that many of my closest friends have long-standing connections to communities which have had pivotal roles in the execution of some of the most horrific terrorist attacks of recent times. But while the leaders of those communities do not publicly condone them, they nevertheless actively frustrate the efforts of law enforcement services to identify the individuals responsible. Moreover, while publicly distancing themselves from the ideology of the perpetrators, the leaders of these communities continue to provide them and their associates with a safe haven and a platform for the further dissemination of their evil. Unfortunately there is a limit to what any single Western government can do about this, since the communities in question transcend national boundaries and are no respecters of sovereignty – a necessary and entirely understandable function of their long-term and well-publicised aspirations to global hegemony. What? No, I’m not talking about the Caliphate fantasies of Daesh or Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah; I’m talking about the existential Umma of their most influential allies. What? No, I’m not talking about Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Iran; I’m talking about Facebook, Google and Apple.
Ten years ago the weapons of choice for the committed metropolitan jihadi were the AK-47 and the suicide vest; today they are the smartphone and the driving licence. Equally worryingly, today’s terrorists are increasingly homegrown rather than imported. It hardly needs to be said that no decent, law-abiding, tax-paying Australian wants what happened last month in Manchester, London and Kabul to be re-enacted on the streets of Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide. And I have no doubt that most of us would be happy to tweet, post or otherwise digitally share our solidarity on that subject. But to ensure that Australia remains insulated from serious Islamist aggression in the future, how many of us would be prepared to boycott the social media platforms the terrorists depend on? To put it another way, how many of us would close down our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts to minimise the chances of another Lindt café siege? I suspect it would be about the same percentage as would be prepared to stop driving our cars.
And rightly so. If the population of a Western democracy finds itself confronted by a clear and present danger it is government initiatives that are required, not digital vigilantism. But even the most hawkish United States administration would baulk at taking unilateral action on an issue which threatens to compromise what voters see as a constitutionally enshrined right, aka freedom of speech. To put it another, simpler way, it will take a coalition of the willing to take on Big Data. And if the toothless, tokenistic tiger we call the UN wants to justify its continued existence, and prove to an increasingly sceptical world that it is something more than an anachronistic repository for wishful thinking (witness the ineffectual hand-wring over North Korea), it could start by passing a resolution which makes the management of such corporations criminally complicit in terrorism when they fail to take down the propaganda videos of terrorist organisations or refuse to unlock the smartphones of people accused of terrorist acts.
And maybe the US is the wrong UN member to table such a resolution. Perhaps this is a rare opportunity for China to step up to the humanitarian plate. Whatever you say about China’s record on a whole raft of issues, the control and censorship which its government has exerted over social media since its inception – not long ago seen as an affront to democracy – is now starting to look rather sensible.
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