A Welcome Partnership to Fight Online Terrorist Content

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Government officials and onlookers have properly inquired into what social media platforms are doing to stop the spread of terrorist content on the internet.  And, social media companies for years have maintained complex, nuanced and evolving policies and practices that allow them to identify this content and act responsibly in the face of enormous challenges, particularly to monitor their networks and work to expeditiously remove it.

Going a step further, a group of leading internet companies announced yesterday the formation of a partnership to combat terrorism online.  Specifically, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube—and potentially other companies to be joining in the future—have come together to help curb the spread of terrorist content online, announcing the decision to create a shared industry database of “hashes” — unique digital “fingerprints” — for violent terrorist imagery or terrorist recruitment videos or images that we have removed from our services.

This is a very big step forward in the very difficult fight against terrorism online.  For years, these companies and others have maintained extensive efforts to combat online terrorist content.  For instance, Facebook prohibits “dangerous organizations” that are engaged in “terrorist activity or organized criminal activity,” removes content “that expresses support for” violent or criminal behavior, and bars “supporting or praising leaders” of these organizations, or “condoning their violent activities.”  Twitter has a similar policy, saying its users “may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.”

The challenge with this type of content is to maintain the critical commitment to empowering people and global communication, while also continuing to uphold the critical values such as privacy, freedom of expression, and the right to access information.  This is a balancing act that requires both automated systems and extensive human review.  Last month, the Global Network Initiative, a group that represents academics, investors, civil society organizations and companies, released a report concluding that this online terrorist content is the most challenging issue for freedom of expression and privacy online.  The report therefore offers a series of recommendations for companies and governments about how to respond.  SIIA has also opined in the past about the shortcomings of efforts compel companies to remove and report this content.

At a glance, many onlookers have suggested that online terrorist content can be easily identified and removed by using a template could be a program that is already employed by online firms to block child pornography.  Unfortunately, identifying terrorist content is much more subjective; there is no universally accepted definition of terrorist content.  In general terrorist content refers to material posted that depicts graphic violence, encourages violent action, endorses a terrorist organization or its acts, or encourages people to join such groups.  But without the ability to deploy a simple technological solution, it is more difficult to address terrorist content than child pornography, where you have very clear, objectionable content that lends itself to automated technology to solve the problem.

This new initiative takes into consideration the critical online values, the challenges of identifying online terrorist content across billions of online users around the world, and therefore does not automate the removal terrorist material.  The companies will begin sharing hashes only of the “most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos we have removed from our services — content most likely to violate all of our respective companies’ content policies.” But “matching content will not be automatically removed. Each company will continue to apply its own policies and definitions of terrorist content when deciding whether to remove content when a match to a shared hash is found.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the incessant problem of terrorist propaganda online, but the ongoing commitment and collaborative effort will increase the efficiency of fighting this problem, and create a substantial roadblock for promoting terrorism.  

David David LeDuc is Senior Director, Public Policy at SIIA. He focuses on e-commerce, privacy, cyber security, cloud computing, open standards, e-government and information policy. Follow the SIIA public policy team on Twitter at @SIIAPolicy.