It is ironic that President Barack Obama would travel to China and speak against government control over the internet. If the American Department of Homeland Security has its way new cybersecurity laws will enable Obama’s administration to take control of the internet in the event of a national crisis. How that national crisis might be defined would be up to the White House but there have been some precedents that suggest that the response would hardly be respectful of the Bill of Rights.
Many countries already monitor and censor the internet on a regular basis, forbidding access to numerous sites that they consider to be subversive. During recent unrest, the governments of both Iran and China effectively shut down the internet by taking control of or blocking servers. Combined with switching off of cell phone transmitters, the steps proved effective in isolating dissidents. Could it happen here? Undoubtedly. Once the laws are in place a terrorist incident or something that could be plausibly described in those terms would be all that is needed to have government officials issue the order to bring the internet to a halt.
Government intrusion in the private lives of citizens is already a reality, particularly in the so-called Western Democracies that have the necessary technology and tech-savvy manpower to tap phones and invade computers. In Europe, draconian anti-terrorism laws enable security agencies to monitor phone calls and e-mails, in many cases without any judicial oversight. In Britain the monitoring includes access to detailed internet records that are available for inspection by no less than 653 government agencies, most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with security or intelligence, all without any judicial review.
In the United States the Pentagon recently sought an internet and news "instant response capability" which it dubbed the Office of Strategic Influence and evidence is growing that it has seeded a number of retired military analysts into the major news networks to provide a pro-government slant on the war news. The State Department is also in the game, tasking young officers to engage presumed radicals in debate on their websites. There also is the warrantless wiretapping program, which continues under the Obama administration in spite of pre-electoral promises that it would be stopped, while the growing use of national security letters means that private communications carried out using the internet can be accessed by Federal law enforcement agencies. The national security letter, established by the PATRIOT Act, is an investigative tool that is particularly insidious as it does not require judicial oversight. More than 35,000 were issued by the FBI last year and the recipient of a letter commits a felony if he or she reveals the receipt of the document. In a recent case involving an internet provider in Philadelphia, a national security letter demanded all details of internet messages sent on a certain date, to include account information on clients with social security numbers and credit card references.
The free flow of information on the internet has also produced a reaction among those who are more concerned with getting out a specific message. If you have noticed the frequent appearance of bloggers and "talkbackers" on the various internet sites who write in less than perfect English and who always support attacking Iran and are defensive about Israel, sometimes overwhelming sites with garbage messages, you are not alone as it is clear that a sustained effort is underway to intimidate, influence opinion, and suppress opposing views. The United States and Israeli governments have taken the lead in putting out propaganda over the internet and there are also indications that several European countries, including Britain and Germany, are engaged in creating regulatory hurdles and countering information that they do not approve of. When the debate is open and the interlocutors are identifying themselves as government representatives one might well argue that the process is healthy as it permits a genuine exchange of views, but where the government hand is hidden the exchange should be regarded as little more than propaganda, what the old Soviet Union might well have referred to as "agitprop."
The focus on war by other means over the internet is important, if only because it means that governments are using their vast resources to spread propaganda in a deliberate effort to confuse the debate over important foreign and domestic policy issues. Israel is at the forefront, exploiting its cutting edge telecommunications industry and enabled by its large and powerful diaspora to get out its message. Not surprisingly, its lobbies including AIPAC are also leaders in the effort, sometimes acting openly and sometimes covertly.
Israel became heavily engaged on the internet during its devastating assault on Gaza last January, when world opinion came down strongly against it, recruiting teams of young soldiers and students to blog in support of Operation Cast Lead. It has recently focused on the UN’s Goldstone Report that claimed that Tel Aviv had committed numerous war crimes in Gaza, supporting a worldwide organized campaign to discredit anyone promoting the report. The latest victim of the smear has been the respected and nonpartisan group Human Rights Watch (HRW). In June Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister pledged that his government would "dedicate time and manpower to combating" human rights organizations. Shortly afterwards Ron Dermer of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office named Human Rights Watch as one of the offending organizations. Many attacks on HRW were subsequently carried out openly using various front organizations, including NGO Monitor which is based in Jerusalem and funded by wealthy Americans. Elie Wiesel, who cashes in on his humanitarian credentials while remaining notably silent over Israeli war crimes, is on the Monitor board and has written a letter attacking HRW. Critical pieces in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times soon followed the initial attacks, commentary that was distributed widely by AIPAC on Capitol Hill and also all over the internet.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry, headed by right-wing extremist Avigdor Lieberman, runs a semi-covert program which is openly funded by the government as the "internet fighting team" but which deliberately conceals the affiliation of the "talkbackers." Ilan Shturman coordinates the Ministry effort, which is run out of the Hasbara Department, "hasbara" being a Hebrew word that is normally translated as propaganda. Shturman’s young and enthusiastic employees work from a prepared script of official Israeli government positions. They are instructed not to identify themselves either as Israelis or as government employees. There have been numerous applicants to work for Shturman. An Israeli source reports that one applicant emphasized his own qualifications, writing "I’m fluent in several languages and I’m able to spew forth bullsh*t for hours on end."
But there is also concern that the program will further distort the news cycle which is already suffering from deliberately misleading government leaks, making it impossible to discern what information that is surfacing is being fabricated. One Israeli critic of the Foreign Ministry program has described it as part of a "thought police state." And the effort is increasingly international in nature. During the attack on Gaza, Shturman headed an effort to obtain the assistance of Jews abroad, recruiting a "few thousand" to work with his Israeli volunteers to bombard hostile websites with Israel-friendly commentary. Much of the chatter is in English, though the teams also work in the other principal European languages. Recent immigrants from the Israeli government’s Ministry of Absorption have been recruited and used to attack sites in their own more exotic native languages.
The Israeli government program is expected to increase. A private advocacy group called Give Israel Your United Support has a reported 50,000 activists who use a specially developed software called megaphone that sends an alert when anti-Israeli commentary appears, permitting supporters to bombard the hostile site with their own comments. In July, 5,000 members of the World Union of Jewish Students were given the megaphone software. There are also reports that several American Christian evangelical groups have indicated that they are interested in helping the cause. The goal is to have hundreds of thousands of activists worldwide who are prepared to place messages supportive of Israel.
The danger is real. Most Americans who are critical of the actions of their own government rely on the internet for information that is uncensored and often provocative, including sites like Antiwar.com. As the United States generally follows Israeli initiatives for security it is likely only a matter of time before Obama’s internet warfare teams surface either at the Defense Department or at State. Deliberately overloading and attacking the internet to damage its credibility is all too possible; witness the numerous sites that have been "hacked" and have had to shut down or restrict their activities. American citizens who are concerned about maintaining their few remaining liberties should sound the alarm and tell the politicians that we don’t need more government advice on what we should think and do. Hands off the internet.