As Europe Responds to Norway Attacks, Calls for Internet Monitoring Emerge

Co-authored by Jane Abell.

Throughout Europe, calls for increased Internet surveillance have emerged in response to the July 22, 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway. Police and security forces hope that by keeping a closer eye on online activities, they will be able to spot any "weak signals" that indicate potential threats.

After a meeting on July 28 attended by the Polish EU Presidency, EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, the European Commission, Europol, member states, and Norwegian counter-terrorism experts to discuss the events in Norway, European counter-terrorism forces pledged to increase Internet surveillance and monitoring of cybercrimes. de Kerchove's principal advisor Tim Jones has stated that "analysing what groups are saying on the Internet" will be one of "a variety of measures" used by the EU to prevent copycat and repeat attacks. On the national level, politicians from Finland, Turkey, Estonia, and Germany have voiced support for similar measures.

Right-wing extremists enjoy the freedoms of the Internet

The move toward heightened surveillance is linked to claims that Anders Breivik's attacks could have been predicted, and thus prevented, had closer attention been paid to his online presence. In the weeks following the attacks, news has spread of Breivik's active participation in right wing, conservative, and even neo-Nazi online forums. Matthew Goodwin, an expert on right-wing extremism at the University of Nottingham, told the Global Post: "Online, he was certainly active in terms of far-right blogs such as Brussels Journal and Gates of Vienna. He had a extensive Facebook network and had built up substantial online links."

In 2009 and 2010, for example, Breivik posted a number of comments on websites [no], including Minerva [no] and the right-wing site Additionally, Breivik was a member of the Swedish neo-Nazi website [se]. (English translations of some of Breivik's comments may be viewed on journalist Doug Saunders' personal blog.) But although Breivik was on an Interpol watch list for purchasing certain chemicals online, he was not officially considered a threat by the Norwegian Police Security Service prior to the attack.

Breivik also worked to cultivate a more public online presence in the weeks leading up to the attack. He maintained a Facebook page (now offline) and a Twitter account (@AndersBBreivik), onto which he posted a single quote from John Stewart Mill, "One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.” Additionally, Breivik uploaded a 1,500 page manifesto and a short video to the Internet on the day of the attacks. He also e-mailed the manifesto to over 1,000 people, including European lawmakers and members of parliaments, less than two hours before the first bombing. These documents were first publicized by the US blogger Kevin Slaughter (@kevinslaughter) the day after the attack and were authenticated by Norwegian media shortly thereafter.

Governments react with plans for increased Internet filtering

In Turkey, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç stated that the attacks on Norway justify the government's plans to implement an Internet filtering system. According to Hürriyet Daily News, Arinç has stated that Breivik's attacks were aided in large part by the Internet. He claimed that Breivik used manuals found through Google to construct the bombs used in Oslo and to improve his gun skills. "Now this villain [Brevik] says he learned about how to manufacture a bomb by searching on Google for weeks," Arinç said. "Let them [opponents of filtering] think once more about whether sites that give practical [instructions] on how to manufacture a bomb, [set] a landmine [or] blow up a bridge have any use for humanity after the deaths of [76] people in Norway."

In Finland, deputy police commissioner Robin Lardot announced that the government will increase surveillance in an effort to prevent future attacks. However, these measures will not infringe upon the rights of Finnish citizens, promises Mikko Paatero, Finland's national police commissioner, saying that "freedom of speech always comes first."

In Estonia, authorities are also planning to heighten Internet monitoring. In an interview with AFP, Erkki Koort, the undersecretary for internal security at the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, was frank about the country's plans: "At the moment one thing is clear — as a preventive measure we plan to increase the capacity of Internet monitoring so we can pick up information from the Internet about possible attack plans or anything that can jeopardise internal security." In another interview with Estonian public radio, Koort said that police needed easier access to data retained by telecommunication companies: "In today's world, a computer's IP address should be identifiable without any official procedure." Estonia's plans to increase surveillance come just months after Freedom House, an American NGO, named Estonia the country with the highest level of Internet freedom.

In Germany, Christian Democrat (CDU/CSU) parliamentary domestic security speaker Hans-Peter Uhl called for increased Internet monitoring [de] and the reintroduction of data retention. In an interview [de], Uhl also claimed that “in reality, this act [the terrorist attacks] was born on the Internet.” Fellow Christian Democrat and member of the European Parliament Manfred Weber called for a European offensive against political extremists [de] on the Internet. He said that “we need European laws stipulating that extremist websites have to be deleted or blocked within the EU.” Members of a police officer’s union also demanded the introduction of an “alarm button” [de] on the Internet.

Uhl’s condemnation of the Internet as the birthplace of Anders Breivik’s terrorist attacks has attracted criticism [de], even from within his own party. Younger CDU parliamentarians have turned against this call for increased surveillance. MP Peter Tauber said that “the Internet cannot be regulated and monitored by the state in the way Mr. Uhl imagines.”

Calls for Internet monitoring a mere "knee-jerk reaction"?

Critics have cast doubt on the assertion that Anders Breivik could have been stopped had stronger Internet monitoring been in place. "Lone wolves" such as Breivik, with little or no affiliation to terrorist groups, are notoriously hard to detect. Green MP and Internet politics speaker Konstantin von Notz has stated [de] that calls for data retention are "a knee-jerk reaction" and "frivolous and cynical." Data retention could not have prevented the attacks, he claims. Similarly critical of the moves to increase surveillance is digital rights activist Markus Beckedahl, who argues [de] that a crackdown on Internet freedom would not prevent terrorist attacks but would instead "destroy the Internet" and hurt democracy.

Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg has cautioned against placing limits on fundamental freedoms in the name of counter-terrorism. Stoltenberg promised not to allow the tragedy of the attacks to sway the nation's dedication to freedom of expression: "We have to be very clear to distinguish between extreme views, opinions — that's completely legal, legitimate to have. What is not legitimate is to try to implement those extreme views by using violence." Limiting free speech would not, however, prevent these acts from occurring, opponents argue. As Tim Jones explained at the ad hoc meeting called in by the Polish EU presidency, "while many people may have extreme ideas," and even express them on the Internet, "very few translate them into terrorist acts."