By Carter Brundage, B.A. Candidate in International Development, University of British Columbia.
The Conservative Party of Canada’s recent introduction of Bill C-51, among a number of reforms, seeks to give CSIS an unprecedented power: the ability to take down websites and computer systems that advocate or promote the commission of terrorism. This new capability ushers in an era of cyber counter-terrorism for the Canadian security apparatus, but many question whether this is a step in the right direction. This post will explore the operational effectiveness of these powers. However, I acknowledge the multitude of equally important ethics and freedom of speech issues brought about by this legislation that could provide material for a number of posts.
From the counter-terrorism perspective of CSIS, Bill C-51 will be a useful tool to have in its arsenal. There are some operational concerns, such as the elimination of a valuable organizational networking tool, however, there will no doubt be a number of circumstances where the removal of a terrorist propaganda site is well warranted. There will inevitably be a number of circumstances where there are far preferred alternatives.
On December 8th, 2014 TSAS’s own Jeremy Littlewood and Craig Forcese testified at the Senate committee on National Security and Defence, specifically warning against this sort of censorship. Both Littlewood and Forcese asserted that through fair and democratic freedom of speech, civil society can aid in the establishment of a valuable radicalization counter-narrative, a topic previously explored on the TSAS blog. In summary, the criticism of terrorist ideologies and potential for alternative solutions to the quest for personal significance will aid in counter radicalization. While the RCMP and public safety attempt to control radicalization through community engagement, it is clear that civil society and a competitive market place of ideologies online will also assist in providing realistic alternatives.
Canada’s ability to prevent radicalization will become increasingly important should we face a wave of terrorism carried out by leaderless resistance and lone-wolf terrorists. While the September attacks on parliament are debatably evidence of the rise in lone-wolf terrorism, an increase in lone wolf terrorism has also been predicted by CSIS itself. Some of these lone wolves have been sponsored by organisations like IS, others are only inspired by their ideology. However, many organizational websites are hosted internationally, and are therefore out of the jurisdiction of the Canadian courts. As a result, Bill C-51 may be hamstrung to affect only domestic propaganda that is more easily countered through a democratically promoted counter-narrative.
If, in the future, Canada is faced with a fifth wave of terrorism by lone wolves and leaderless resistance, the use of social media and the internet will undoubtedly play a significant role in the facilitation of radicalization. While Bill C-51 gives Canadian Security agencies a powerful tool to combat websites that promote terrorism, the democratic and state sponsored condemnation of these sites will play an important part in the counter-narrative against radicalization. With this in mind, the abuse or overuse of Bill C-51’s internet censorship powers may prove ineffective in the fight against the headless, yet hydra-like fifth wave of terrorism. Without operational knowledge, Canadians can’t be sure how often these powers will be invoked. However it is worth noting that the legislation requires judicial authorization each time CSIS seeks to seize terrorist propaganda, which may provide a legal barrier to prevent widespread abuse of the power.