Friday, September 10, 2010

Monitoring online radicalisation

I was at the fascinating Terrorism and New Media conference in DCU yesterday taking part in a panel discussion "Monitoring the Internet for Violent Radicalisation: Ethical and Legal Issues", along with Mina al Lami (LSE), Paul Durrant (ISPAI) and Sadhbh McCarthy (Centre for Irish and European Security).

The discussion was under the Chatham House Rule so I won't be putting names to views, but the other panelists and the audience had some interesting perspectives which I thought worth jotting down.

There was a definite concern that anti-terror laws (especially in the UK) may make criminals of researchers. Cases such as the recent University of Nottingham arrests have made academics increasingly nervous and uncertain as to whether they can carry out their work in a way which is compliant with the law. From a purely practical perspective (at a conference where the majority of participants were from outside Ireland) there is a fear that the contents of one's laptop might be legal in country A but not in country B.

On a related point researchers were worried as to their legal and ethical responsibilities if they find material which might provide evidence of a crime or indications that a crime might be committed in the future. For Irish researchers section 9 of the Offences Against the State Act 1998 presents particular problems, making failure to volunteer certain information to GardaĆ­ punishable by up to five years' imprisonment unless the researcher has a "reasonable excuse" for that failure. There seems to be a relatively low level of awareness of this and other reporting obligations.

The source material for studies in this area - jihadi forums, bulletin boards, chatrooms, etc. also presented difficulties for researchers. What ethical standards apply to the use of material deliberately published for a global audience? Does it matter whether individuals have used their real name or a pseudonym? Does it matter whether material is on an open forum or requires registration? Are researchers justified in deceit as to their identity or institutional affiliation in signing up to these forums? While there has been a good deal written on these issues (well summarised here) it seemed that these points still trouble researchers.

Finally, there was a substantial consensus that existing EU practice doesn't provide adequate ethical review of research in this area. When funding decisions are being made, there is a narrow focus on legality - asking "will researchers be breaking the law?" - rather than on wider ethical questions such as "is it desirable to develop particular tools of censorship or mass surveillance?" The INDECT project was cited as a prime example of inadequate ethical review, which (perhaps not surprisingly) has led to widespread media criticism.

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