Tech platforms should step up efforts to counter the spread of extremist propaganda peddled by terrorist groups, former Irish minister Lucinda Creighton says in an interview with CEPA. Europe leads the way in crackdown.
Question: Is the fight against terrorist hate speech still a priority? After all, we haven’t suffered from terrorist attacks lately.
Answers: If you look at all the terrorist attacks in Europe over the past decade, it’s probably fair to say that they all relied on an organization carried out on an online platform – be it the terrorist cell that attacked Brussels and Paris in 2016, the ‘lone wolf’ Manchester Arena Bomber or others. In each case, individuals were radicalized or organized their attacks through an online platform.
This danger is not banned. Since the fall of his caliphate IS turned his attention even more to Europa, and that’s why we need to follow these cells. Fortunately, the European police and anti-terrorist forces have increased their cooperation. They thwart attacks, but we still face a deadly and real Islamist threat, and now Ukraine is adding a new element to the terrorist threat.
Question: How is the war in Ukraine related to this terrorist threat?
Answers: European fighters are returning from the war zone and are a security risk. An estimated 17,000 foreign fighters have been involved in fighting since 2014. Some are on the Russian side; some are on the Ukrainian side. Ukraine is a flashpoint for the disaffected. Many are either far right or far left ideologically. We know that some were involved in the violent Yellow Vest protests in France.
Much of the recruitment is done online, including via Telegram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook. It is aimed at vulnerable and isolated people – usually young men. It teaches them deadly skills.
Question: How should we react?
Answers: They want to regulate without destroying innovation. They want to close vulnerabilities and loopholes. The platforms need to be forced into action because they allow this content to thrive, or at least turn a blind eye.
Europe Terrorist Content Bill came into force just two months ago and represents a positive step forward Project to counter extremismwho I work with supported it. The bill is not a vague catch-all like legislation on hate speech, which is subjective, prone to misinterpretation and raises valid concerns about freedom of expression. This Terrorist Content Act defines what types of videos and other content are considered terrorist. It’s explicit. Bomb-making videos, for example, are banned. These videos are not reasonable idioms – they are intended for malicious purposes. Under new European law, police notices to remove such content are binding.
We could and should have gone further – ordering shutdowns. Terrorist content continues to circulate online, not just hundreds of thousands or millions of videos and images, but billions of pieces of content. In many cases, removed images simply reappear. Platforms should be required to use hashing technology to prevent illegal videos from reappearing.
A tragic example is the Christchurch attack in 2019 at a mosque in New Zealand. It was streamed live and went viral. Two months after the tragedy, the video was still available online.
Question: But not her Christchurch call mark a turning point as political leaders began to advocate cracking down on online extremism?
Answers: It was just a statement asking tech companies to self-regulate. I believe the government must intervene. In no other sector would you allow such self-regulation – wouldn’t you regulate financial services after the global crash, wouldn’t you regulate aviation for health and safety? You cannot expect self-regulation from companies.
In my opinion, the Christchurch Call has stalled while Europe has moved forward.
Question: What are the next steps?
Answers: Tech companies resisted a specific time for takedowns. I think there should be a 60 minute window. If you don’t get the material down fast, it will mushroom like mushrooms and be impossible to contain.
Europe Digital Services Act represents another positive step. It’s forcing big platforms to get involved, as it faces potentially significant fines of up to 6% of revenue.
There is still much more to be done. The DSA does not mandate the use of specific technologies, so we now have a system that is not consistent across platforms.
Question: And the transatlantic relationship? Will this question split Washington and Brussels?
Answers: That’s a good question. Europe is certainly ahead of the US for several reasons. In the United States, there is special constitutional protection for freedom of speech. This represents a barrier that makes legislators cautious.
From a practical point of view, most big tech success stories are American and there is a risk that the US will perceive these measures as targeting US tech companies and as protectionist. I think there is a consensus between the current US administration and the EU that technology needs to be regulated. There is no need for this topic to generate massive tension. It is good that both sides are discussing this Council for Trade and Technology.
Lucinda Creighton is a non-resident Senior Fellow at CEPA and a former Irish Minister for European Affairs. She advises for them Project to counter extremism.