Social media handed “one-hour rule” for terrorist takedowns in Europe

The European Commission is still considering whether to regulate social media platforms to ensure they promptly remove illegal content — be it terrorist propaganda, child sexual exploitation or hate speech but also commercial scams and even copyright breaches.

Yesterday it revealed the next steps in trying to rule social sharing platforms in the meanwhile, placing a big squeeze on tech companies to takedown terrorist content specifically by setting out what it’s calling the “one-hour rule” — which requires companies take down this type of illegal content within one hour of it being reported (or at least “as a general rule”).

It says this time frame is needed because this type of content poses a “particularly grave risk to the security of Europeans”, and thus its spread “must be treated as a matter of the utmost urgency”.

And while the Commission is using the word “rule” informally this is not (yet) a new law.

Rather it’s putting pressure on firms to comply with an informal — and, say critics “arbitrary” — recommendation or face the risk of actual legislation being drafted to rule social media, potentially with penalties attached (as has already happened in Germany).

The Commission defines terrorist content as “any material which amounts to terrorist offences under the EU Directive on combating terrorism or under national laws — including material produced by, or attributable to, EU or UN listed terrorist organisations”.

So as well as ISIS propaganda it would, for example, include content created by the banned UK Far Right hate group, National Action, too.

Last fall the UK government put its own squeeze on tech giants to radically shrink the time it takes to remove extremist content from their platforms — saying it wanted the average to shrink from 36 hours down to just two. So it’s perhaps been providing the inspiration for the EU executive body’s even more stringent clampdown — to a one-hour rule.

Although it is giving companies and EU Member States three months’ grace before they need to submit relevant information on terrorist content to enable the Commission to monitor their performance.

Commenting in a statement, Andrus Ansip, VP for the Digital Single Market said: Online platforms are becoming people’s main gateway to information, so they have a responsibility to provide a secure environment for their users. What is illegal offline is also illegal online.

“While several platforms have been removing more illegal content than ever before — showing that self-regulation can work — we still need to react faster against terrorist propaganda and other illegal content which is a serious threat to our citizens’ security, safety and fundamental rights.”

Last month the UK government also revealed it had paid an AI company to develop a machine learning tool that it said can automatically detect online propaganda produced by the Islam extremist hate group ISIS with “an extremely high degree of accuracy”.

It said the tool could be integrated into platforms to block such content before it’s uploaded to the Internet. And UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she was not ruling out forcing tech firms to use the tool.

The Commission is also pushing platforms to implement what it calls “proactive measures”, including “automated detection”, to — as it puts it — “effectively and swiftly remove or disable terrorist content and stop it from reappearing once it has been removed”.

It’s also following the UK government’s lead by saying it also wants social media giants to share learnings and techniques with smaller platforms, and says it wants tech firms to “put in place working arrangements for better cooperation with the relevant authorities, including Europol”.

“Fast-track procedures should be put in place to process referrals as quickly as possible, while Member States need to ensure they have the necessary capabilities and resources to detect, identify and refer terrorist content,” it adds.

EU Member States are being instructed to report regularly to the EC on tech firms’ performance regarding terrorist content referrals — and also on “overall cooperation”.

The Commission also says it will launch a public consultation in the coming weeks.

While terrorist content is the clear priority here, the EC is continuing to apply pressure on platforms to tighten the screw on all “illegal content” — as it defines it.

Though it seems to have picked up on some of the criticisms of bundling up so many different types of content issues into one “illegal” package, and the associated risk of applied measures being disproportionate, as its Recommendation also specifies the need for safeguards against unjust and/or improper content takedowns, including by improving transparency for citizens on platforms’ content decisions.

“The spread of illegal content online undermines the trust of citizens in the Internet and poses security threats,” it writes, explaining its rational. “While progress has been made in protecting Europeans online, platforms need to redouble their efforts to take illegal content off the web more quickly and efficiently. Voluntary industry measures encouraged by the Commission through the EU Internet Forum on terrorist content online, the Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online and the Memorandum of Understanding on the Sale of Counterfeit Goods have achieved results. There is however significant scope for more effective action, particularly on the most urgent issue of terrorist content, which presents serious security risks.”

Among the measures tech companies are generally being pushed to adopt are clearer “notice and action” procedures around illegal content, while — to avoid the risk of unintended removal of content that’s not illegal — the EC says “content providers should be informed about such decisions and have the opportunity to contest them”.

And while it specifies that it wants companies to have “proactive tools” for detecting and removing illegal content, it says this approach should be “in particular for terrorism content and for content which does not need contextualisation to be deemed illegal, such as child sexual abuse material or counterfeited goods”.

The Commission also adds that measures “may differ according to the nature of the illegal content”, and says its Recommendation “encourages companies to follow the principle of proportionality when removing illegal content”.

On safeguards to avoid the risk of automated tools (especially) removing content they shouldn’t, it further says companies should “put in place effective and appropriate safeguards, including human oversight and verification, in full respect of fundamental rights, freedom of expression and data protection rules”.

So that boils down to tech firms needing to employ even more human moderators to act as the sanity check on AI-powered automation systems that are simply never going to be making flawless decisions in the chaotic field of content.

Although tech firms have a bad track record on this front, and last year Facebook and Google both committed to increasing human moderator and content safety headcount to try to improve their overall performance in the face of public pressure following a series of content moderation scandals.

The EC’s intent here is also to bolster cooperation between tech firms, trusted flaggers (aka third party specialist organization that help platforms with identifying problem content) and law enforcement authorities.

It’s giving companies and Member States a full six months to submit relevant info for (non-terrorist) illegal content for it to monitor the effects of its recommendations.

So the threat of any EU-wide legislation being announced to generally rule social media content seems unlikely for at least a year.

Although measures on terrorism could be announced sooner if the Commission decides it really needs to act because platforms haven’t been doing enough.

EdiMA, the European trade association, whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter, responded with disappointment and dismay to the Commission’s recommendations, describing it as “a missed opportunity for evidence-based policy making” — and claiming a “one-hour turn-around time in such cases could harm the effectiveness of service providers’ take-down systems rather than help”.

Here’s its full statement:

EDiMA is dismayed by the European Commission’s decision not to engage in crucial dialogues and fact-finding discussions with stakeholders before issuing the Recommendation on Tackling Illegal Content Online today, and regrets that it is a missed opportunity for valuable evidence-based policy making.

EDiMA acknowledges the importance of these issues but feels the need to highlight the fact that the industry has been rising to the challenge. Overall success in tackling terrorism both online and offline is dependent on partnership and collaboration, and our sector has shown leadership in this regard through the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and wishes to highlight that valuable collaboration is underway via the Hash Sharing Database. Our sector accepts the urgency but needs to balance the responsibility to protect users while upholding fundamental rights – a one-hour turn-around time in such cases could harm the effectiveness of service providers’ take-down systems rather than help.

Whereas a harmonised approach at EU level on notice and action procedures would be welcome, EDiMA fails to see how the arbitrary Recommendation published by the European Commission, without due consideration of the types of content; the context and impact of the obligation on other regulatory issues; and, the feasibility of applying such broad recommendations by different kinds of service providers can be seen as a positive step forward.

EDiMA will continue to engage with the stakeholder community at large in the coming months to seek a pragmatic and workable way to tackle illegal content online.

A Facebook spokesperson also told us: “We share the goal of the European Commission to fight all forms of illegal content. There is no place for hate speech or content that promotes violence or terrorism on Facebook.

“As the latest figures show, we have already made good progress removing various forms of illegal content. We continue to work hard to remove hate speech and terrorist content while making sure that Facebook remains a platform for all ideas.”