Halle. Christchurch. Paris. El Paso. London. We are living in times of global terrorism, unlike any we have known before. This is a terror that thrives through its enduring online presence. A terror that is streamed for the world to witness. A terror that tech giants continue to dismiss. The time has come and gone for relying on the goodwill of the tech industry and their unfulfilled promises of self-regulation.
This year has repeatedly demonstrated the threat of online terror content. We have borne witness to live-streamed attacks across the globe and we have seen the onslaught continuously go viral. No example is more devastating than the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. Of the 1.5 million videos of the attack there that were detected and eventually removed by Facebook, only 1.2 million were screened and blocked by Facebook’s software before being uploaded. This left 300,000 videos uploaded to the platform for users to see.
And this is just one attack on one platform. Neither this attack, nor its dissemination online, is unique. Similar stories are scattered across social media, impacting on an untold number of lives. But there is tangible remedy. Europe must take real, proactive steps to combat this international security crisis.
The proposed Terrorist Content Online (TCO) regulation will provide European guidelines on the prevention, detection and removal of violent and hateful terrorist content. However, negotiations between the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission have reached an impasse on proactive measures. This is despite recent action by Europol showcasing how crucial and effective proactive measures can be in combatting terrorism on the online battlefield. Europol, 12 member states and nine hosting service providers came together and genuinely disrupted Islamic State online propaganda. They referred over 26,000 items of IS-supporting content. Proactive measures are not just important: they are the only effective way to prevent the rapid dissemination of terrorist content online. It behoves law makers to ensure that proactive measures are the definitive course of action in protecting our citizens through European legislation.
The proactive measures proposed in the TCO regulation will cut off the spread of harmful online content at the source, rather than removing it once it is viewed. Proactive measures are needed to force companies to act proactively, rather than reactively. To achieve this, it is imperative that this proposed regulation requires online platforms and companies to proactively deploy automated and algorithmic tools to identify and prevent the upload of content that has been identified as terrorist. Currently the TCO regulation fails to ensure the swift, effective and permanent takedown of terror content online.
Despite the clear benefits of the use of such measures, the European Parliament removed this provision based on concern for fundamental rights. There were claims of censorship and discrimination, that the automated technology would lack the ability to understand the context or detect satire. Yet, this argument is entirely contradictory as technology is already in use in order to target other, non-terrorist content. Technology is already being deployed by all platforms to prevent the dissemination of copyright materials and child pornography. The additional concerns about the capacity for smaller platforms to comply, despite it being widely communicated that there are automated tools available free of charge, ring hollow.
Now is the time to implement change, as dissidence and hate continue to thrive through irreversible images and messages online. Governments have stood idly by as the tech giants failed to effectively self-regulate time and time again. Removal orders have failed to make any real impact, as horrific videos repeatedly appear.
Proactive measures work. Nothing can be gained by doubting measures which have already proven effective. As we wait for bureaucratic decision makers to make choices based on political point scoring, global online terror spreads, online radicalisation remains a threat and our citizens remain in danger. The TCO regulation is urgently needed in order to reduce these threats and protect our citizens – the foremost duty of all legislators.
- Lucinda Creighton is the Senior Advisor at the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) and a former European Affairs Minister of Ireland.
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