Yesterday, USA Today posted a story titled “Osama bin Laden fan clubs build online communities” which outlines how community sites such as MySpace and Orkut, powerful community-building tools, aren’t just for teenagers and business people seeking connections. The article claims, “one of the largest insurgency groups in Iraq”, the Islamic Army, has ties with the most popular Osama bin Laden community on Orkut.
The purpose of these communities appears to be similar to any other community with less detestable aims: to attract new members who agree with each other about certain ideas. It doesn’t concern me when people organize to worship George Lucas. It does worry me when people gather around the idea of killing me and everyone I know.
After the 2004 election, no one can be blind to the Internet being a powerful tool for political efforts. It’s obvious that in addition to organizing rallies, the Internet can also help organize acts of violence. The Internet is vast and uncontrolled, exactly as it was designed to be. We shouldn’t want it otherwise. But, as Spider-man would say, with great power comes great responsibility. In other words, the Internet, like life, allows you to be good or evil. Don’t be evil.
Unfortunately, Google appears to be looking the other way, probably out of neglect. I can imagine it’s a big problem to sift through all the activity going on. And service providers have traditionally avoided attacks from the government by claiming they do no editing. But Google does edit some material if it violates their terms of membership. And Google did remove some material after USA Today brought it to their attention. I’m sure they just aren’t willing to put the resources behind keeping the system free of this junk.
On the other hand, you can’t just wander into Orkut. You must be invited. The site itself claims this is a tactic for keeping traffic on the site low. Orkut is not the same as MySpace. It should be small enough for Google to manage.
Some argue that this is a free speech issue. It isn’t. Google isn’t the government. They have no obligation to protect free speech on their services, and spokeswoman Debbie Frost says as much.
Google ought to be halting any activity on their service that encourages their own destruction. I suspect there aren’t any Orkut communities dedicated to digging up dirt on Google employees, or discovering Google’s trade secrets, or organizing attacks on Google facilities. Yet they allow more general efforts to continue.
Google ought to be cooperating with law enforcement to hand over all the information in these communities to aid the effort in stopping these terrorists. Maybe they are and just don’t want to admit it. They famously cooperated with China in censoring part of the Internet for Chinese people, but just as famously fought our government on handing over aggregated search data. Since the second act seemed to be a PR move to counteract the first, I suspect if they are pushed on this issue, they will claim they are upholding freedom of speech and privacy.