Wednesday 16 December 2015 – San Bernardino shootings update and Donald Trump and China on the Internet

The mass killings by a Muslim couple, Sayed Farook and Tashmeen Malik (below),  on 2 December in San Bernardino in California left 14 people dead and resulted in the police shooting dead the killers in a shootout. I have written about the shootings elsewhere in my blog. In those entries I refer to claims that Tashmeen Malik had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on social media.

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This claim has now been shown to be false with the FBI in the United States saying that she did not write about her support for Islamic State on social media. The FBI Director, James Comey, said that the couple had talked about their goal of “jihad and martyrdom” in emails and messages but had not used social media to discuss their beliefs.

The FBI also said that there was no evidence that they were part of a terror cell, or had contact with others.  Despite this, Islamic State proclaimed them to be “martyrs,” and called them “followers of the Islamic State.” Islamic State, however, did not make any claim that its militants or leadership were involved in the shootings.

As Mr Comey said, Islamic State is good at seeking to inspire individuals to carry out attacks in its name. It does this via propaganda, social media and encrypted communications. He said Islamic State were very different from its “parents”, al-Qaeda, and that the FBI were carrying out hundreds of investigations into potential IS-inspired plots in the United States.

Mr Comey said he was confident that security services will overcome the technological sophistication of the Islamic State.  Of Twitter, in particular, he said: “Twitter works as a way to sell books, as a way to promote movies, and it works in a way to crowdsource terrorism – to sell murder.”

It is clear that Malik and Farook were self-radicalised. Farook’s father said that his son was “fixated with Israel” and supported Islamic State’s ideology around the founding of an Islamic caliphate.  He was speaking to the Italian newspaper, La Stampa shortly after the attacks two weeks ago. He continued: “He shared the ideology of al-Baghdadi to create an Islamic State,” and spoke of his anger when he saw his son with a gun: “In 45 years in the United States, I yelled, I have never had a weapon. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, ‘You’re loss’.”

Mr Farook couldn’t forgive himself: “Maybe if I had been at home, I would have found out and stopped him,” he said.  Mr Farook was struggling to come to terms with what his son did. Sayed Farook’s sisters, however, told the New York Times that they had no signs indicating he would carry out an attack.

It has only been two weeks since the attacks but it has created a storm in American politics which doesn’t seem to be blowing out anytime soon. Donald Trump, the current frontrunner in the race for the Republican Party nomination for next year’s Presidential election, has dominated the media since the attacks. His call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States so that the authorities could work out “what was going on” has caused worldwide ridicule and condemnation.

At first he said that ALL Muslims, including American Muslims abroad, would be banned from entering the United States. He then backed down and said that American Muslims could re-enter the country. He also said that American Muslims serving in the US military could “come home”. This latter clarification came after American Muslim servicemen and women started posting their identity cards on social media in protest.

President Obama said his unconstitutional desire to restrict the rights of American citizens, “disqualified” him from being President. Other politicians from the States and around the world have also condemned his comments as being anything from misguided to downright racist. His fellow Republican Presidential nomination candidate, Jeb Bush, called him “unhinged”. David Cameron, the British prime minister, made a rare intervention in the US nominations race by criticising Trump.  Despite his increasingly disturbing comments and ideas Trump has managed to maintain his position as Republican frontrunner. The more controversial his comments the more support he seems to get from his support base.

I’ll be writing more about Donald Trump in my blog but in this entry I will discuss his idea that he wants to ban the internet and “penetrate” it to weed out Islamic State who are becoming increasingly skilful at manipulating the internet.  Trump is himself a regular tweeter at @therealdonaldtrump but has complained that the internet was being used by extremists and should be turned off.

Incredulous and impractical as this might seem Trump says he is committed to his plan to ban the internet – or perhaps more realistically, though still extremely unlikely, to politically control and monitor the internet. He doesn’t seem to have consdiered how a democracy will be able to politically control and monitor the internet. Such talk comes at the same time that China’s communist party is explaining its desires to control the internet. China wants to strengthen its Great Firewall and impose national sovereignty on the internet so that individual countries can impose their own ideology and control on the internet.  It also comes at a time when the European Union is considering restricting children from using social media sites. How they would achieve this is unclear, and their proposals have been criticised as likely to increase children’s vulnerability online if they have to hide their age to use it.

Stopping children getting on the internet is also something Trump wants. As Islamic State is radicalising some children on the internet, his logic is that parts of the internet should be shut down entirely so that they could no longer be used by children. Not one for concrete suggestions on how this would be achieved, Trump simply said that he would speak to Bill Gates about “closing it up.” Trump’s ignorance is astonishing. As well as that, does anyone believe that Bill Gates, or any tech company, would want anything to do with a Trump administration trying to close down the internet to an entire target demographic?

As with many things Trump declares seemingly without thought. He has backed off somewhat from his initial desire to ban the internet. He now says that he would only close “areas where we are at war with somebody” so that they can’t “use our internet.” This last comment was expressing his belief that the internet was created by mostly Americans, ignoring that the vital concepts, such as the World Wide Web – which makes the internet user-friendly – is a British invention … by the computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee believed that the internet should be a global community that is freely accessible and free for anyone to post to and share material on. To inspire the internet to develop this way he gave to the world his invention – which revolutionised the internet and has allowed it to develop as the global community he desired. Apart from countries such as China and North Korea, the internet has remained a worldwide, borderless entity. It has revolutionised the world in so many ways and is a true global entity in a world of increasing nationalism.

When Trump was reminded that his proposals would put him in the same league as China and North Korea, he said: “Well look, this is so easy to answer […] You talk of freedom of speech, you talk freedom of whatever you want, I don’t want them [Isis] using our internet to take our young impressionable youth […] Isis is using the internet better then we are using it, and it was [the US’s] idea.”

He explained that his plans would involve two approaches: getting “brilliant people from Silicon Valley and other places” to look at how to close down parts of the internet, and asking experts to “penetrate” the internet to attack Isis.  He said: “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our internet.” He seems to believe that “our good people” could “find out exactly where Isis [are] and everything about Isis.”

His constant reference to the internet as “ours” is a particularly disturbing idea that flies in the face of the spirit of the internet and its concept as a global community free from national control. In China, President Xi Jinping expresses a similar desire when he speaks of “cyber sovereignty.” Trump would get along just fine with President Xi on this issue. The Chinese leader said that countries had the right to choose how to develop and regulate the internet. He was speaking at the World Internet Conference in Zhejiang province.

Both Trump and President Xi are bringing the issue into national prominence, with security and control becoming an increasing concern to them and  many other politicians who are frightened  precisely because they have no control. China already employs hundreds of thousands of people to monitor its people’s activity on the internet. It also blocks major sites, such as social media and the BBC, and censors posts on the social media it does allow. With 650 million internet users this is a huge operation by the Chinese Government.

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Most Governments have stayed away from the conference in China. The organisation Reporters Without Borders has pointed out that 40 journalists are in prison in China for posting material online that has angered the Chinese. Attendance at the conference, it argued, would make them complicit in China’s censorship regime. Although attended by representatives of leading tech companies – including Apple – the only world leaders there were from Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan and Tajikistan.

The conference ended in farce when the organisers pushed a “joint statement” under delegates’ hotel room doors asking them to sign up to the notion of “national cyber sovereignty.”  The question comes to mind – would Donald Trump have attended the conference or supported the idea of national sovereignty if he was President?

Both Trump and Xi desire control over the internet but both are dressing up the desire in a cloak of national security. President Xi called for countries to work together on internet security and that countries should not pursue “cyber hegemony” or engage in activities that undermine other countries’ national security.

The Chinese, however, are not adverse to hacking and other cyber attacks that steal commercial and government information. President Xi’s hypocrisy was reflected on this issue when he called for global action to: “curb the abuse of information technology, oppose network surveillance and hacking, and fight against a cyberspace arms race.”

Like many of Trump’s grandiose and controversial ideas, this one will also get nowhere. Not because they are impractical and would never get the support from  most of the rest of the world – but simply because Donald Trump will never be President of the United States. He is extremely unlikely to even be the Republican Party’s nominee for the White House next year. Trump’s popularity is largely confined to a right-wing reactionary faction of the Republican Party. When his bandstanding on every controversial subject he thinks of is put to the scrutiny of national primaries from the New Year his poll ratings will take a fatal hit. This is already been shown in a poll in the first primary poll that puts him 10 points behind Ted Cruz.

The Republican Party is perhaps finally recognising and confronting the damage Trump is doing to the Grand Old Party, but his fellow candidates have so far been reluctant to take him on directly.  They – and the media who is so obsessed with Trump – surely will as the primaries arrive and Trump’s outlandish ideas will get the scrutiny that will show them to be ridiculous.  If Trump does achieve the Republican nomination he will probably  face Hillary Clinton in the race for the White House. She has consistently led the polls against ALL the Republican candidates, including Trump.

In a national election Trump’s narrow but committed support will become less significant and his complete lack of experience in ANY elected office will play against him. No one can expect to be elected with such total lack of experience. The few that have done so were either military heroes or have at least been Presidential cabinet secretaries in the past. For now Trump’s popularity is entirely in the context of his personal battle between Republican candidates to get nominated. As an outsider who has no allegiance to lobbyists or anyone else it seems, he can say what he likes. The media is fuelling his statements simply by reporting on them so much (at no cost to Trump’s election finances and at the cost of coverage for his opponents’ views). Trump is giving no real thought to the realities of implementing his policies if he were President. They are deliberately controversial and aimed at his narrow support base. They bare no resemblance to what an administration would be able to implement – if only on economic grounds – and they bare no resemblance to what the majority of Americans are thinking or what they want from the next American President.

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