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YouTube bans terrorism-training videos

By The Associated Press
09.15.08

WASHINGTON — The popular video-sharing site YouTube has moved to purge terrorist-training films and other videos that extremist groups might use to attract new members, an imperfect process that will rely on users to report objectionable videos.

It's sort of like the post-Sept. 11 advice — if you see something, say something. It's nearly impossible to vet every video when 13 hours of new video are uploaded every few minutes.

A quick search on Google-owned YouTube on Sept. 12, one day after the new policies were posted, turned up several videos on how to make bombs using, for instance, such household items as toilet bowl cleaner and tin foil.

In addition to barring terror-training videos, the new YouTube community guidelines include bans on videos that incite others to commit violent acts, videos on activities such as how to make bombs and footage of sniper attacks. Previously, it had policies in place against showing people "getting hurt, attacked or humiliated," banning even clips OK for TV news shows.

YouTube has not identified specific videos on its site that led to the change, nor said exactly how it will choose those that are purged. YouTube does not deny that extremist groups could have used the site.

The Internet has become a powerful tool for terrorism recruitment. What was once conducted at secret training camps in Afghanistan is now available to anyone, anywhere because of the Web. Chat rooms are potent recruitment tools, but counterterrorism officials have found terrorist-sponsored videos are also key parts of al-Qaida's propaganda machine.

YouTube, large as it is, represents a fraction of the video content available on the Web. Videos can also be transmitted by e-mail or other means without ever appearing in a public forum like YouTube.

Google did not include its popular e-mail service, gmail, under the new YouTube guidelines, nor address whether it would ever try to limit Google searches for the same kind of material on other sites.

Even so, backers of the latest change hope it will blunt al-Qaida's strong media online campaign.

"It's good news if there are less of these on the Web," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said. "But many of these jihadist videos appear on different Web sites around the world, and any time there is investigative or intelligence value we actively pursue it."

Researchers have found terror-training videos posted online in both English and Arabic. Videos of varying sophistication appear to show how to slit someone's throat or make suicide vests, said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University. Others are violent anti-American speeches or montages of militants appearing to attack U.S. forces.

Hoffman said he does not know which of the worst videos has appeared on YouTube.

"It's going to do nothing to take these videos off the Internet," said John Morris, an Internet free-speech expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Morris noted the availability of other terror-tinged videos on other sites. "This change isn't going to make this any different."

A year ago, a Homeland Security Department intelligence assessment said "the availability of easily accessible messages with targeted language may speed the radicalization process ... for those already susceptible to violent extremism."

But experts in the field debate whether shutting down extremist sites is effective. Keeping them online allows analysts and investigators to monitor what is being said and in some cases who is saying it.

"The reality is by shutting it down, it is more or less a game of whack-a-mole — it pops up somewhere else," said Frank Cilluffo, homeland-security director at George Washington University. However, he said, forcing extremists to find other ways to post videos could give officials a better opportunity to monitor them.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked Google to ban videos from al-Qaida and other Islamist terrorist groups. Lieberman said the private sector has a role in protecting the United States from terrorism.

By banning these videos on YouTube, "Google will make a singularly important contribution to this important national effort," Lieberman wrote to Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt last May.

Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said the senator hoped other host sites would institute similar policies. "This is an ongoing debate," she said.

YouTube spokesman Chris Dale would not respond to questions about Lieberman's appeal but instead said YouTube regularly updates its policies regarding content. Without announcement, YouTube included a link to the new restrictions at the bottom of administrative notices on its home page.


Previous
Sen. Lieberman to Google: Delete terrorist YouTube videos
Google says it recently removed about 80 videos that violated video site's restrictions on gratuitous violence, hate speech. 05.23.08

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