Should tech companies join the government’s counter-terrorism unit?

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

MPs reporting on the radicalisation of young people in the UK couldn’t be more clear on where they stand on the impact of digital on this issue:

“The use of the internet to promote radicalisation and terrorism is one of the greatest threats that countries including the UK face.”

The ‘Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point‘ report made big headlines because Twitter and Facebook received lengthy criticism for not being proactive enough on policing ‘extremist’ content.

Google’s YouTube received the most high praise for implementing a rapid-response flagging system so a trusted group can highlight potentially harmful material and alert the company as quickly as possible.

Twitter was singled out because it does not proactively notify police of material that poses a threat to life, it said, because the content is public for anyone to find. But the company did confirm it had more than 100 people working on this issue and, between mid-2015 and February 2016, had suspended 125,000 accounts. Google said it had removed 14 million videos globally in 2014.

All three companies, along with Microsoft, have also recently signed upto new EU rules on tackling illegal hate speech, the MPs conceded.

It’s clear now that these aren’t just IT or tech or social media companies, they are big parts of people’s lives, huge distributors of content and therefore can’t hide behind their relative newness.

A whole five pages of the report was dedicated to the role of tech platforms, while just five paragraphs was dedicated to the old media: “In short, what cannot appear legally in the print or broadcast media, namely inciting hatred and terrorism, should not be allowed to appear on social media,” the MPs said.

It’s not unsurprising that websites distributing information with billions of users, versus traditional media outlets with relatively insignificant audiences, have found themselves here, as MPs explained:

“The internet has a huge impact in contributing to individuals turning to extremism, hatred and murder. Social media companies are consciously failing to combat the use of their sites to promote terrorism and killings. Networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and they have become the recruiting platforms for terrorism. They must accept that the hundreds of millions in revenues generated from billions of people using their products needs to be accompanied by a greater sense of responsibility and ownership for the impact that extremist material on their sites is having…

“These companies are hiding behind their supranational legal status to pass the parcel of responsibility and refusing to act responsibly in case they damage their brands. If they continue to fail to tackle this issue and allow their platforms to become the ‘Wild West’ of the internet, then it will erode their reputation as responsible operators.”

MPs have called on these companies to produce quarterly public reports on their efforts in this area, detailing what they have removed and why.

MPs also floated the suggestion, made in the evidence of Baroness Shields, the government’s Minister for Internet Safety and Security, that tech companies should invest in technology to “automate the identification and removal of dangerous extremist content”. We know we can’t always trust computers to decide what the right thing to do it, but there you go.

But, in what is likely an unprecedented move, the MPs also suggest that tech companies set up permanent home within the police’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit.

“It is odd that when taking down dangerous and illicit material the CTIRU needs to waste time trying to establish contact with organisations outside the unit. Representatives of all the relevant agencies, including the Home Office, MI5 and major technology companies, should be co-located within CTIRU. This will enable greater cooperation, better information-sharing and more effective monitoring of and action against online extremist propaganda.”

It’s one thing to recognise the status and power of these newer companies in the media market, but this recognition surely comes with some ethical need for independence?

The new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was unable to comment on this issue, although they have recently launched a digital review of regulations and the way they apply to global digital publishers.

NS Tech has reached out to the Editors Code of Practice Committee, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Google to find out whether they think social media companies now need to be more regulated – and therefore also independent – like the press.

We will update when we hear back.


Facebook and Google declined to comment on joining the counter-terrorism unit.

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