A US-based company recently pulled down their 3D gun-printing manual from the internet after the State Department threatened them with prosecution. Why then do terrorist web sites with bomb-making instructions remain alive and well online?
The Boston Marathon bombings suspects reportedly followed instructions from an article called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" in al Qaeda's online Inspire magazine.
The publication has been linked to other bomb plots besides Boston, including those by Jose Pimentel in 2011 and Naser Jason Abdo in 2012. The latter had a copy of the "Kitchen of Your Mom" piece on him when arrested, according to NBC.
Rather than dismantle the Inspire website itself, the US government assassinated its founder Samir Khan in the 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Predictably, the assassination did nothing to halt Inspire, which continues to release content such as "Mujahideen 101" and "What to Expect in Jihad."
"The Germans and Japanese had no right to pass out flyers in Times Square in 1943; why do we allow jihadists to hire US ISPs to host its information content to be available inside the United States?" asks counter-terrorism expert James Van de Velde in an interview with Politix.
Free speech advocates argue that the First Amendment protects such websites from being shut down.
"Criminalizing talking about things is exactly what the first amendment is designed to prevent," says Nate Cardozo, Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Terrorists websites aren't the problem, it's terrorists."
"Its hard to imagine a robust version of this that's also constitutional," says Julian Sanchez, Research Fellow at the Cato Institute.
Sanchez said it would be hard for the U.S. government to know where to draw the line. "You very quickly get into an ugly and thorny situation of trying to figure out which online communities are terrorist enough," Sanchez says.
For example, a discussion thread on a web site that says America has an immoral government that should be overthrown is protected speech, Sanchez said
But "Al Qaeda is not saying, 'fight the man,' or 'down with America.' It is calling for violence. It is unambiguous," states Van de Velde.
"The First Amendment protects free (legal) speech; not all and any speech," he adds. "I have no right to post a blog calling for a specific person's death or posting a bounty for someone's rape or murder. That's called 'conspiracy' and one goes to jail if you write such content."
COULD IT BE DONE?
While the government can't simply order websites to shut down, it can do so in practice by threatening to prosecute under other laws.
The 3D gun blueprint was taken offline voluntarily because the company was threatened with criminal charges. The State Dept. sent a letter to the group that posted the blueprints saying that they might be classified as "munitions" whose export is prohibited by federal statute, Sanchez said.
Similarly, the government can shut down and seize the assets of companies that facilitate sharing copyrighted music and movies, but only because they are breaking copyright law.
In the case of terrorist websites, the government can't intervene unless a crime has been committed. But there is a workaround. Militant websites are often hosted by American Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Van de Velde points out. The US government can threaten to prosecute those ISPs for providing "material support" to organizations designated terrorist groups by the State Department.
"If Inspire magazine does not rise to the level of material assistance, what content would?" he adds.
BUT THEY'RE NOT DOING IT. WHY?
That may be possible, but it may not be legal, claims Cato's Sanchez. "Providers generally enjoy a 'safe harbor' for the actions of users on their network."
Another reason the government doesn't pressure ISPs over terror sites may be that website takedowns aren't very effective. "Technically it won't work," says Cardozo. "Once the information is on the internet, getting it off is an insurmountable problem from the government's end."
For example, you can ask ISPs to block magazines like Inspire. But Inspire is published as a PDF, so it wouldn't stop people from circulating it in that form. "You can't stop people using a hundred different methods or sites putting up things as fast as they can be taken down," Sanchez said.
The government's intervention over the 3D gun illustrates the futility of trying to remove information from the internet., Sanchez points out. A quick search shows the blueprints remain widely available on Torrent sites. "You can still get your own copy within a few minutes if you want," Sanchez adds.
Even if you could eradicate terrorist websites, the information is freely available elsewhere. "I've read plenty of news stories that give detailed instructions on how to make a bomb," says Sanchez. "Even if you could block it on the internet you could find it at the library," he adds.
Cardozo agrees: "I can go on amazon right now and buy the anarchist's cookbook,"
Shutting down websites is only proposed by people who don't understand the internet, says Sanchez bluntly. "I don't think anyone who understands the internet would suggest this is anything other than a plan that would waste a lot of people's time and energy."
"You end up playing this game of whackamole," Sanchez adds.
Some counter-terrorism experts disagree, claiming that each time you shut down a website it's harder for terrorist communities to regroup.
"The argument that shutting down websites is a futile exercise of "whack-a-mole" has never been proven true," writes Van de Velde in a recent op-ed. "Disrupted websites have not been re-constituted quickly if at all, and those that have been re-constituted have often re-appeared in much diminished forms, with far fewer members and more limited exposure."
The White House has taken the side of free speech advocates, and announced that the approach to terrorist websites will not involve attempting to remove them from the web, according to a brief memo published in February 2013. The prevailing approach is to raise public awareness of terrorist websites, and to monitor those sites to prevent acts of terrorism.
In fact, a major reason why the US government leaves terrorist sites alone is because they supposedly help anti-terrorism operations.
"It was better to have these sites open and know where they were, so then we could see what's going on," explained Christopher Swift, a Georgetown Law Professor and former Treasury Department official to TPM. "The U.S. hasn't made an effort to shut down jihadi websites all over the planet because those websites are a source of intelligence. They're a source of insight into what our adversary's thinking. Why would we ever shut them down?"
But that's self-defeating, argues Van de Velde, who claims that allowing terrorist sites to proliferate leads to more terrorism, even if it also allows the FBI to nip some plots in the bud. He attributes such misguided thinking to "well-meaning professionals" who are confused about "the end-state goal: denying the enemy use of the Internet. The goal is to defeat the enemy, not endlessly report on the organization."
"Instead of thinking of cyberspace principally as a place to gather intelligence, we need to elevate it to the status of 'battlespace,'" concurs John Arquilla of the Naval Post Graduate School, writing for Foreign Policy in 2009.
And shutting down websites can provide more intelligence on terrorists than simply leaving those websites live, some claim. "We don't lose much if jihadist websites are harassed and re-constituted," Van de Velde told Politix. "In fact, we may gain intelligence through such harassment" when the website's owners are forced to re-purchase domains and rebuild the site, he adds. Agencies can also learn more about former site users, who may expose themselves by searching for new terrorism-promoting forums.
That's poor logic, Evan Kohlmann of the non-profit NEFA Foundation told Time. "If you start shutting down the websites it's like chopping up a jellyfish - you end up with lots of little pieces that are very difficult to monitor."
In any case, free speech advocates are adamant that the First Amendment trumps other pragmatic goals.
"That's why we have the bill of rights," Cardozo says. "To keep those reactionary impulses from overwhelming the ideals that our country was founded on."