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To stop terror content online, tech companies need to work together

December 21st, 2018

Wherever we live, whatever our background, we’ve all seen the pain caused by senseless acts of terrorism. Just last week, the tragic murder of Christmas shoppers in Strasbourg was a sobering reminder that terrorist attacks can happen at any time.

What is clear from such attacks is that we all—government, industry, and civil society—have to remain vigilant and work together to address this continuing threat. While governments and civil society groups face a complex challenge in deterring terrorist violence, collaboration across the industry to responsibly address terrorist content online is delivering progress. And more tech companies must join the fight against terrorist content online.

In June 2017 senior representatives from Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube came together to form the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), a coalition to share information on how to best curb the spread of terrorism online. I’ve had the responsibility of chairing this Forum for its initial a year and a half, and I’m pleased to report that the Forum has helped to deliver significant results across a number of areas.

In September 2017 at the United Nations General Assembly, I joined the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Italy to discuss what more the tech industry could do to combat terrorist content. I was there on behalf of the GIFCT member companies to present our commitments to tackle terrorism online: We collectively pledged to develop and share technology to responsibly address terrorist content across the industry; to fund research and share good practices that help all companies stay abreast of the latest trends; and to elevate positive counter messages.  

We understand that we must responsibly lead the way in developing new technologies and standards for identifying and removing harmful terrorist content. As EU Commissioner Avromopolis said: “The tools you are developing yourselves on your platforms are the most effective counter-measures we all have. That is why I am a strong supporter of your efforts under the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.” A key pillar of GIFCT’s work to drive progress is maintaining a shared database of digital fingerprints (hashes) of known terrorist content that lets any member of the coalition automatically find and remove identical terrorist content on their platforms. In 2018, we set—and achieved—an ambitious goal of depositing 100k new hashes in the database.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve also engaged smaller businesses around the world to discuss their unique needs and to share ways to responsibly address terrorist content online. With the UN’s counterterrorism directorate and the UN-initiated TechAgainstTerrorism program, we’ve worked with more than 100 tech companies on four continents. We also convened forums in Europe, the Asia Pacific region, and Silicon Valley for companies, civil society groups, and governments to share experiences and get suggestions for further efforts.

To enhance our understanding of the latest trends in online terrorist propaganda, GIFCT has been working with a research network led by the Royal United Services Institute. We are speaking with its network of eight think tanks around the world about how terrorist networks operate online, the ethics of content moderation, and the interplay between online content and offline actions. That network will publish ten academic papers over the next six months to benefit everyone working on the problem of terrorist content online.

We’ve also successfully worked alongside governments and Internet Referral Units, like Europol to get terrorist content down even more quickly. With civil society organizations, we’ve developed a tool that will help them mount counter extremism campaigns across many online platforms at once. And together with Google.org, we launched a $5 million innovation fund to counter hate and extremism. The fund gives grants to nonprofits that are countering hate, both online and off. Our £1M pilot program in the UK received over 230 applications, and we awarded grants to 22 initiatives.

These are significant developments for the industry, but we know we have much more to do. The Forum will continue to expand our membership, vastly increase the size of our database of hashes, and do even more to help small companies and academic websites responsibly address terrorist content.

We can never be complacent against the continuing threat of terrorism. The work being done today by our coalition members has helped limit the use of our platforms by terrorist organizations, and we have extended an open invitation to others in the industry to join with us in this effort. Working together, we will continue to develop and implement solutions across the industry to protect our users, our societies, and a free and open internet.