ITAI and CySec

Terrorism and the World Wide Web

The month of March this year has been fascinating and intimidating on the same scale. The world celebrated 30th birthday of World Wide Web, colloquially called as the ‘internet’ or ‘web’, on March 12, 2019. World Wide Web was invented at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in 1989 when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist and an engineer, wrote a protocol where he proposed a unifying structure linking different computers for sharing information with universal outreach. Since then, this day has been celebrated around the world as a great achievement of humanity in the modern digital age. World Wide Web has connected people across the globe in so many ways unprecedented in human history. The success greatly led to the arrival of a virtual world; a world unimaginable before the 21st century; something which was independent of physicality but happening in real-time, challenging the conceptions of what is real and unreal. 

Then dawned March 15, 2019 just 3 days after the World Wide Web’s anniversary. Two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were attacked while people were offering their Friday prayers. 50 people were martyred on the spot and around the same number of people sustained critical injuries in the horrific incident. The terrorist was found to be a 28-year-old Australian citizen, Brenton Tarrant, who single-handedly carried out the attack. He described himself as anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and working for white supremacy in Europe and the larger world. Though it has been the most gruesome terrorist activity which has shaken the world, but it was Islamophobia and white supremacist underpinnings which contributed largely to spreading terror this time. It wasn’t about the act itself but the way it was planned and executed that shocked the world. This act of terror  was staged primarily for the World Wide Web, livestreamed on Facebook and shared on all major social media platforms. The terrorist was well-aware of the niches of the World Wide Web and used it for his nefarious aims. Apart from that, it was an act of terror which was inspired, planned, supported and shown on the Web with utter realization of how it will work out afterwards. The terrorist used body camera mounted on a helmet, 4G data connection and put it live on the Web from start till end, just after 1:30 p.m. on that day beginning the live broadcast with the words, “Let’s get this party started”. The reports suggest that he wanted to keep going but somehow it didn’t work out well after 17 minutes. While on his way to carry out the terrorist attack, he played specific music in his vehicle, which had been played in the military trucks of Serbian Army while carrying out the genocide against Bosnian Muslims. 
Nobody ever imagined that the eve of 30th anniversary of World Wide Web will witness such a heinous act and that too with its help as the ‘performance stage’. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and white supremacy aspirations – which Brenton Tarrant’s Norwegian hero Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist, also shared with him while attacking civilians in 2011 in Oslo, Norway – are not new to the world. What Anders Breivik did was that he staged the killings to spread his manifesto to the larger world; for him killings were a kind of a ‘book launch’ event. Anders Breivik even tried to calculate how many people would he need to murder to spread his manifesto, which was a copy-pasted book of around 1500 pages; he ended up killing 77 people. Brenton Tarrant followed the same path. He created a 74-page manifesto and e-mailed it to many just before the terror attack, but he went a step ahead where just murder wasn’t enough to spread the manifesto. He chose the Web as a stage because there wasn’t anything stopping him from doing so. About 200 people witnessed the massacre live on Facebook and nobody reported it, while 4,000 people across the world viewed it in minutes when Facebook started removing it. Facebook also curbed 1.2 million attempts to upload the 17-minute long gruesome video of the terror attack out of 1.5 million attempts in the first 24 hours.  According to Facebook statistics, 300,000 copies of the video survived on its platform for 2 billion people to view, comment and share. The same video was also shared immediately to other social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, Reddit etc. and went viral across the globe. The website where all this appears to be planned, instigated and where the details were even shared before the attack, is still up and running. One can easily read the discussions before and after the attack. People on the forum expressed happiness and were found asking to close down the threads of discussion to avoid closure of the website. Someone also asserted that no action would be taken against this imageboard and website; and sadly, he wasn’t wrong as the webpage is still working.
What does this incident tell about us as human beings? What does it say about the nature of the world that we live in? How has the Web contributed to this world? Is it okay to express just about anything on the Web? Is the Web only shaping or spearheading terrorism? Are there any inherent flaws in the Web mechanisms? What is the meaning of free speech on the internet? These and many more questions are being raised by the incident and there are many more ways to look at them. The narcissistic tendencies in humans and their groups based on race, region and religion are as old as human history. These are not new attributes of any recent origin. It is the nature of the current world which needs focus and deliberation. The Web has been termed as something extraordinary happening to human civilization; which it is, to a great extent. It took the idea of human freedom to a new level and pushed boundaries of freedom in some of the most oppressed quarters in the world. People felt a reprieve from the tyranny of oppression and exploitation, and received support wherever they lived because of it. Then capitalists and enthusiasts jumped in and structured the Web to maximize profits through exploiting the loopholes in the controls and regulations. Even the world saw new forms of currencies called ‘cryptocurrencies’ having no physical form and completely unregulated which can be utilized for illegal transactions on deep web. The rise of tech giants appeared persistent in the estate of the World Wide Web when cracks started appearing in it on many levels. Materials pertaining to banned outfits and ideals started appearing on them. This deep web led to illegal trade of drugs, weapons and other contraband things which governments usually don’t allow. Religious, racial and regional sentiments gained ground and the world allowed this slur in the name of freedom of speech instead of asking for a review of the situation. Specifically, after 9/11, extremist messages and literature didn’t involve a print machinery, a courier service or underground connections to spread them but it was all on different tech platforms of the World Wide Web, in the palm of anyone who wanted and sometimes even unsolicited without ifs and buts of culpability. It would be no crime if it was further shared, retweeted or tagged anyone on the Web.  
Finally, this euphoria of freedom took an appalling shape on March 15, 2019 when web security filters and AI systems failed, hundreds of workers of tech companies tried to stop the video but failed. And ironically here as well, no one committed a crime by not having any mechanism to stop the live broadcast and its further dissemination. The terror attack video is still available online, and downloaded by thousands of users. One may try to look at it positively that in the era of fake news and limited availability of facts, the Web made it possible that the whole truth could be recorded and made available in all the corners of the world without any ambiguity. But this could-be benefit is unworthy of any consideration against the terror and damage it has caused to the collective conscience of the world.  The primary aim of the terrorist was to spread terror at unprecedented levels using the Web. Furthermore, the scary thing is: It is almost impossible now to completely wipe that off from the World Wide Web. This manifests greatly the flaws of the online systems and mechanisms we allowed to flourish; accepted by regulators while not taking the broader view of its potentials. 
Apart from the discussions on curbing Islamophobia, racial exploitations and better gun control, current system of the World Wide Web has to change if it has to serve the human purpose and common good. Web is becoming the primary source of radicalized information, birthplace of ‘support groups’ and a place of utmost glorification of such acts. No foolproof mechanisms exist to-date to curb them. It appears that nothing has been done in this direction because it may clash with the inflow of capital which has been based on maximum users’ involvement without any responsibility. Many of such web outlets are not simple ‘tech’ companies but broadcasters (YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Vlogs) and publishers (Twitter, Facebook, blogs) of content. The virtual world anti-human sanctuaries and virtual terror support groups have to be identified and destroyed akin to physical world.  The structure of web which provides instant access to audience by different broadcast mediums needs re-alignment to prevent the birth of such sanctuaries in the first place. The ‘anything goes if it maximizes profits’ approach needs to be questioned and replaced with ‘anything goes for the well-being of larger humanity and common human good’ over the internet. The Web is not a territorial entity and thus, also asks for international consensus on such matters. A responsible World Wide Web is a need of the world, which should be taken as a new pillar, a new dimension in the fight against terrorism, and a helping force to maintain world peace and stability.


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