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Facebook vs. ISIS

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This past week brought two pieces of contradictory news. In a misguided attempt to fight terrorism, Republican presidential candidates proposed curtailing the Internet and, by implication, Facebook. Meanwhile, Facebook rolled on; a year-end Time magazine poll concluded Facebook was the most popular smartphone App with 126,702,000 US users.

Even as Donald Trump and the other Republican presidential candidates push to restrict the Internet and Facebook, increasing numbers of Americans are using social media. A recent Pew Interest poll reported that in 2015, 71 percent of all US adult Internet users use Facebook.

Republicans versus the Internet is a classic conflict of conservative and liberal values. Conservatives want to maintain the status quo. They don't want to "rock the boat;" even if this means denying average Americans access to information. They don't "heart" Facebook because it might possibly be used by ISIS.

In the most recent Republican debate, the moderator, Wolf Blitzer, asked Donald Trump, "So, you are open to closing parts of the Internet." Trump responded, "I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet. Yes, sir, I am."

What Trump seemed to be proposing was shutting down the Internet in Syria and Iraq -- the territory controlled by ISIS. This is theoretically possible if the US and its allies disabled all the communication infrastructure in the area: severed landlines (such as fiber-optic cables), knocked down cell towers, and trashed satellite dishes. Nonetheless, such a strategy is unlikely to stop ISIS from gaining Internet access; for example, a satellite dish could be mounted on the back of a pickup to allow bad guys mobile access the Internet.

In addition, New Yorker correspondent Nicholas Thompson pointed out if commissar Trump did shut down the Syria-Iraq Internet it would have deleterious side-affects. For example, it would shut down the communication infrastructure servicing our allies and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Shutting down the Internet would be a shortsighted dysfunctional response. Like many conservative "solutions" such as burning books that offend them (for example, "Harry Potter"), it attacks a perceived problem with an ill-advised fix; more often than not this actually makes the situation worse.

And, it's the latest indication that Trump is not as smart as he wants us to think he is; that he doesn't understand the nature of the Internet. After all, the Internet is not good or bad; it's a technology, a vehicle for communication. (Full disclosure: as the first Engineering VP at Cisco Systems, I had a modest role in building the Internet.)

As a value-neutral technology the Internet can be put to many uses. Since the inception of the Internet (1982), there have been positive and negative uses such as transmission of tomographic scan files (+) and pornography (-). But that's true of all new communication media. When the printing press was first invented there were positive uses (Guttenberg bible) and negative (erotic literature by Giovanni Palumba).

Facebook is an outstanding use of the Internet. On August 27th, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckenberg announced that I billion people used Facebook on a single day, "On Monday, 1 in 7 people on Earth used Facebook to connect with their friends and family." (For example, 437 million people used Facebook in the Asia-Pacific region and that is only 10.9 percent market penetration (!))

The problem, of course, is that with any new communication vehicle, there can be negative uses. That happened when the San Bernardino terrorists used "direct private messages" before their attacks (by the way, the FBI Director clarified these message were "not public postings.")

When Trump and other conservatives propose, "closing parts of the Internet," they're blundering beyond contemporary conservatism into the land of the Luddites. The land where all technology is bad. Trump is advocating the closing of the American mind; in effect, giving in to fear.

This extreme tactic seems to appeal to Trump partisans. The Washington Post noted, "Trump is far and away the top candidate among Whites without a college degree, getting 46 percent of their support." As one would suspect, these are the voters most likely to not use the Internet. (According to Pew Research 33 percent of those Americans who have less than a high-school diploma do not use the Internet; 25 percent of those who make less than $30,000 per annum do not use the Internet; and 24 percent of rural Americans do not use the Internet.)

Donald Trump is wrong. The answer to Isis is not to shut down the Internet.

The success of Facebook suggests what America's response to ISIS should be: building community throughout the world. We should offer a way for billions of people to communicate, including those Americans who do not have access to the Internet. The United States is a wonderful country; we should guarantee that everyone in the world can see the liberty, equality, and opportunity we take for granted.

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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