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Terrorist content removal: “United in Action” rather than “United in Grief” ǀ View

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The online terror content file looks to ensure content providers remove terrorist content from their sites within an hour of it being flagged to the hosts. Failure to do so will result in providers receiving fines.

Today (April 17th), MEPs will be presented with the opportunity to replace the often heard “United in Grief” with “United in Action” through the online terror content file. In opting to remove terrorist content within one hour, lawmakers will ensure tech companies are no longer afforded exceptions in the fight against extremist propaganda.

The neglected form of terrorism

In the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks, widespread reporting on the dangers associated with digital terrorism exploded. The shock-factor that this content was widely available on mainstream platforms, the ease at which such horrific scenes could enter the lives of people across the globe, and the inability of tech companies to remove these graphic clips quickly and prevent their re-uploads finally made clear: Terrorism online and offline poses a threat to European citizens.

Christchurch is just one example of online and offline terrorism connecting to devastate society. The perpetrator made multiple references to a leading figure in right-wing extremism, Anders Behring Breivik, and has not been the only attacker to do so. What set Breivik’s actions aside from others and why other terrorists have subsequently tried to emulate him boils down to a common theme - digital notoriety. Online content, aimed at inspiration and infamy. Incoherent manifestos which receive mass coverage in the aftermath of such events. Serious societal damage is being done through a host of right-wing online forums and accounts on various social media platforms. Content on these same platforms have radicalised individuals to increase ISIS’s ranks through their foreign fighters, have facilitated the spreading of terrorist propaganda, and have the potential to encourage further acts.

Moderate changes to fight extremism

The online terror content file is not relying on untested methods to ensure that extremist propaganda is removed from online sources, nor is it proposing a massive change in internet usage. On a daily basis content is flagged and removed due to a variety of infringements. Multiple industries work with content platforms to ensure the removal of any content which may cut into their respective profit margins, including music to film. Artists and actors can apply pressure which forces content providers to remove soundbites they have not permitted them to provide, all to preserve royalties and reputation. Tech firms claim that an hour to remove content is unreasonable, yet streams of high-profile sporting events are disrupted and removed in the thousands each and every weekend, often within minutes of being brought to providers attention. Currently, the internet can protect the integrity of the Uefa Champions League, but not European citizens. In extremely sensitive cases such as instances of “celebrity revenge porn”, once a complaint has reached a host the content can be removed at ease. All of these areas refuse to allow content to disrupt their operations. All possess the necessary technology to flag and remove within minutes. Yet for terrorist content, changes have not yet been implemented. Tech’s practices have made it abundantly clear that profits are worth more than lives.

No test with timing

The technology to remove terrorist content within an hour of it being flagged to content providers is already in existence. Rights holders can root out issues for resolution, and see changes within a very short time-period. An hour and fifteen minutes before firing his first shot, the Christchurch shooter had uploaded links to his manifesto online. The notoriety he so greatly craved could have been prevented before the fallout to the slaughter, with actions, and not messaging aiming to inspire more carnage, being available to the digital world. It goes without saying that all terrorist threats require the quickest response possible, with an hour making a significant difference.

Resistance to change

Of those opposed to implementing changes which help to ensure safety from terrorist threats, almost all share a vested financial interest in changes to technology. The sharing of terrorist content plays a major role in our fight against terrorism, the technology with which to remove it has been both developed and implemented already, all that is needed is the political will. Despite the necessity of such regulation, tech giants will argue against any action which raises the possibility of them facing fines. While this should not have a bearing on the political decision to do what is necessary to protect European citizens, for some, Wednesday’s vote will include the interests of hugely profitable industry voices. Throughout Member States the decision is clear however, will we continue to place European society at risk, or hold content providers accountable?

In allowing this extremist content, we do not only facilitate an echo-chamber for these terrorists, we provide a platform for further recruitment. If the European Union really wants to protect European citizens, MEPs must prevent further fuel from reaching the fire with the passing of the online terror content file.

David Ibsen is the executive director of CEP (Counter Extremism Project).