In an unprecedented move, Iceland blocked this week a website that was reportedly linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, reviving debate on freedom of expression when it comes to fighting violent extremism.
“Khilafah.is” was taken down by Internet in Iceland Inc (ISNIC), the authority regulating the country’s domain .is, which said was run by a group calling itself the Islamic State – the name adopted by ISIS.
The site was then tracked to a web hosting company in Iceland and was believed to have gone online in mid-September.
The website was taken down for the sake of “the reputation of the main domain .is,” ISNIC head Jens Petur Jensen told Agence France-Presse.
Iceland is known for its laws prohibiting censorship and has been at the forefront of the international debate on Internet freedom.
“Calling for hate, violence and discrimination is not really covered by freedom of expression. It is a crime in Iceland, as is the case in all other European countries,” Jan Keulen, a commentator on media and freedom of expression, told Al Arabiya News in an email.
“ISIS propaganda is not something ‘disgusting’ we have to accept on behalf of defending the principles of media and Internet freedom,” he added.
“I also don’t buy the argument that Iceland should stick to complete Internet freedom and allow ISIS to use its domain names for the sake of the wider public being informed. How to allow an organization that murders journalists, that does not allow for even the slightest freedom of opinion [and religion] in the areas it controls and uses its propaganda as an important supplementary weapon to fight its violent jihad, to ‘inform’ the public about its actions and ideology?” Keulen added.
The domain’s esthetics
While the alleged ISIS supporters who started the website may have resorted to Iceland’s domain for the freedom it is known for, Taufiq Rahim, executive director at a Dubai-based strategy advisory firm, said the group may have been attracted by the domain’s suffix, .is, which is similar to the acronym used by the militant group.
However, “the fact that they [Iceland] are making this move certainly will cause people to be concerned that they are losing an absolute place of freedom,” Rahim said.
Citing the European response to Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of classified documents in 2013 detailing the extent of intelligence communities surveillance of online communication, Rahim said online freedom in Europe has been compromised ever since.
While European states are less likely to introduce or impose large-scale centralized censorship, there exists certain forms of “filtering, blockings and site take-downs taking place,” a paper published by Quilliam, a London-based think-tank focusing on counter-extremism, wrote in 2014.
“There is a constant struggle for governments to uphold their support for the freedom of expression while also protecting the public from online content that might disseminate hate speech, incite violence or support terrorism,” the paper added.
Arabic-language websites using the country’s domain will be monitored more closely as websites have to be “within the limits of Icelandic law,” according to ISNIC head Jens Petur Jensen.
“Authorities should be cautious in silencing dissident voices and in some cases it is better to allow ‘disgusting’ voices in order not to create new martyrs and not give the opportunity to political forces to exploit the interdiction or persecution in order to have even stronger propaganda,” Keulen explained.
The issue of online censorship has been “problematic for human rights organizations and NGOs and for freedom of expression advocates,” Abir Najjar, a professor of mass communication at the American University of Sharjah, said.
“I do not think blocking website is effective,” she said in a telephone interview, adding that it risks the human rights records of the country imposing the policy.
“Its counter-effective,” she said, explaining that people could access anything using today’s technology.
“At the end of the day, people who would want to get access to that sort of content will get access and governments know this,” she added.
The way to deal with it is by integrating media literacy courses that would help the audience be more critical of online content, Najjar said, adding that such was the case in many European countries and the United States.