An ambitious private initiative to help American Internet service providers (ISPs) identify jihadist websites they are unwittingly hosting was unveiled the other day in Washington.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) will lend its translation capabilities and the expertise of its Islamist Website Monitor Project to any ISP that wants to investigate the content of a suspicious foreign-language site. MEMRI president Yigal Carmon expects that ISPs will voluntarily shut down extremist sites once the providers realize what inflammatory material the sites contain.
The goal is to significantly disrupt the jihadists' use of the Internet to spread their ideology, their explosives know-how, and their recruitment propaganda worldwide. It's a daunting task: The Economist reports that the number of terrorist websites has gone from "a handful in 2000 to several thousand today." What makes it doable, Carmon says, is the fact that the majority of extremist websites are hosted by ISPs in the United States.
Consider "Supporters of Jihad in Iraq", a website whose headlined caption reads "Kill the Americans everywhere." It is hosted by Electric Lightwave, a subsidiary of Integra Telecom in Portland, Ore. Or the website of Islamist sheikh Hamed al-Ali, hosted by Fortress Integrated Technologies, in Irvine, California. Or the Al-Saha Forum, which has posted videos from the media production arm of al Qaeda: It's hosted by Liquid Web Inc., in Lansing, Mich.
If these and similar ISPs systematically eliminated sites with dangerous pro-terrorist content—just as they routinely purge sites with obscene content—al Qaeda and company would lose one of their most valuable weapons. "This is their air force, this is their unconventional weapon," says Carmon.
Some ISPs already have procedures in place to banish extremist sites. Google, which hosts more blogs than any provider in the world, requires its blogger clients to agree to a detailed Terms of Service waiver that prohibits both "hateful" and "violent" content.
In addition to their own standards of taste and civic responsibility, companies must be mindful of the fact that most extremist websites are hosted in violation of federal law. Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, for example, makes it illegal to provide support to designated terrorist groups, and Title 18, Section 842, of the U.S. Code makes it illegal to disseminate operational military information to terrorists.
Usually, the problem isn't that companies are unwilling to comply. It's that the websites are in Arabic or Farsi or other foreign languages. The ISPs don't realize who they're helping.
This is where MEMRI comes in. A privately funded nonprofit founded in 1998 to break down the language barrier between the Middle East and the West, the institute translates and posts on its website selections from the press, television, and websites of the region. It translates them into English, French, Italian, Hebrew, German, Spanish, and Japanese.
Three years ago, MEMRI published a study of Islamist websites, naming their hosts. Within a week, most of the ISPs had shut down the extremist sites—without any direct prodding from MEMRI. Now, to encourage more such voluntary action, MEMRI has made a standing offer: Any company concerned about a foreign-language site it is hosting can fill out a short form on MEMRI's website, and the think tank will—at no cost—translate the content, usually within a week.