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Prime minister Theresa May will today press internet companies to develop technical solutions that will allow terrorist material to be taken down from the internet in under two hours.
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May is due to meet with the world’s biggest technology companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google, to press the case for greater controls on terrorist material on the internet, at the UN General Assembly in New York.
The intervention, which comes days after a bomb detonated at Parsons Green underground station in London, follows growing concerns that internet propaganda plays a significant role in radicalising impressionable people into terrorism.
The prime minister will use a meeting, co-hosted with French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, to acknowledge the progress made by technology companies in tackling the dissemination of propaganda by the Islamic State and other radical groups.
But she will argue that internet firms can still do more to prevent the spread of material that promotes terrorism or provides information on how to make bombs or attack pedestrians with vehicles.
Use AI to prevent spread of terrorist material
She will urge them to “develop new technological solutions to prevent such content being uploaded in the first place”, which could include the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically identify terrorist content.
Britain, France and Germany will press the internet companies to respond much more rapidly to terrorist content by taking it down from the internet within one or two hours of it first appearing. Typically, it can take days for some internet companies to take down terrorist material once they are alerted to it.
“Terrorist groups are aware that links to their propaganda are being removed more quickly and are placing a greater emphasis on disseminating content at speed in order to stay ahead,” May will say.
“Industry needs to go further and faster in automating the detection and removal of terrorist content online, and developing technological solutions which prevent it being uploaded in the first place.”
Her comments come as research reveals that people in the UK consume more jihadi content on the internet than any country in Europe, placing the UK as the fifth largest consumer of extremist content in the world, after Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Internet companies agreed to create the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism in June this year, following terrorist attacks on London and Manchester.
Twitter suspended 299,649 accounts between 1 January and 30 June 2017, and suspended some 75% of accounts before their first tweet.
Google and YouTube are using intelligent systems to automatically identify terrorist videos, while Facebook has announced plans to develop AI technology to identify terrorist material.
Political pressure on tech companies grows
May’s intervention is the latest in a long-running campaign of political pressure designed to persuade social media and technology companies to take responsibility for material published on their platforms.
The UK Home Affairs Select Committee effectively accused the big technology companies of profiteering from extremist propaganda in a report published in April this year.
Director of GCHQ Robert Hannigan, foreign secretary Boris Johnson and home secretary Amber Rudd have also weighed in with demands for technology companies to take a more active role in preventing the spread of terrorist material.
And a major report published by think tank Policy Exchange this week, in advance of May’s speech at the UN General Assembly, called for technology firms to face fines and criminal sanctions if they continue to fail to remove extremist jihadi propaganda.
The report claimed the internet played a role in radicalising over a third of people in terrorist convictions between 1998 and 2015.
In April this year, police branded former Welsh insurance worker Samata Ullah a “new and dangerous cyber terrorist” after he became caught up in Islamist propaganda on the web, and filmed instructional videos on encryption that were posted on an Islamist website.
The prime minister will use the UN meeting to urge other world leaders to join the battle against online extremism.
“We need a fundamental shift in the scale and nature of our response – both from industry and governments – if we are to match the evolving nature of terrorists’ use of the internet,” she said, speaking ahead of the meeting.
“This is a global problem that transcends national interests. Governments must work with and support the efforts of industry and civil society if we are to achieve real and continuing programmes and prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist use of cyberspace.”
Internet companies under fire from former CIA director
The prime minister’s intervention was pre-empted earlier this week by former director of the CIA, David Petraeus, writing in a foreword to Policy Exchange study, The new netwar: Countering extremism online.
He said jihadists were exploiting “vast, largely ungoverned spaces in cyberspace”, and were becoming increasingly agile in avoiding attempts to limit access to radical propaganda.
In a stark warning, he said social media companies, internet service providers and other technology companies had a central role to play in countering extremist groups in cyberspace.
“Without wishing to understate the difficulties they face, I think it is fair to ask whether their efforts to date have been commensurate with the challenge,” he said. “The public expect – and deserve – more from the most powerful and wealthy internet corporations.”
Tech companies could face regulation and fines
The Policy Exchange report called for tougher sanctions against internet companies that fail to take adequate action to prevent the distribution of terrorist material.
“As a start point, those companies should be treated as de facto publishers and distributors of online content,” it said.
Two-thirds of British people believe that leading technology companies are not doing enough to combat online radicalisation, and three-quarters want tech companies to do more to locate and remove extremist content, the study found.
One of the measures proposed was the creation of an independent regulator of social media content, under the control of Ofcom. It would have powers to fine technology companies that fail to remove obviously criminal content in a two-hour window.
It urged the government to use existing legislation to bring criminal prosecutions to companies that repeatedly fail to take down extremist content.
“If the tech companies are treated as publishers of extremist content (as many – including even Mark Zuckerberg – seem increasingly willing to accept), then it follows that they be subject to prosecution in a context in which they wilfully neglect their responsibilities,” it said.
Swarmcast: How Isis spreads propaganda
Terrorist group Isis relies on a “vast ecosystem” of web platforms, file-sharing services, websites and social media to distribute hundreds of items of propaganda each week, according to a report published by think tank Policy Exchange.
Isis has used mobile phone app Telegram as its first channel for distributing propaganda since 2015, said The new netwar: Countering extremism online report.
The application, created by Russian entrepreneur, Pavel Durov, allows Isis to broadcast its followers through “channels”, run large group chats, or send end-to-end encrypted messages.
The terrorist group’s supporters republish propaganda from a core group of channels, and redistribute it across multiple other channels on Telegram, creating tens of thousands of copies of the original material.
This means any attempt to disrupt some of the communications channels will not affect the ability of Isis to continue sharing content.
Once messages are put out on Telegram, they are copied by Isis supporters – who often refer to themselves as fanboys – and redistributed to a wider audience through Twitter and other social media platforms.
This “swarmcast” of multiple distribution channels makes it almost impossible for governments and law enforcement to prevent the dissemination of jihadi material.
“As in the child’s game of whack-a-mole, when pushed down in one place, extremist elements often pop up in another. Jihadists have shown particular facility in exploiting ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world,” said former CIA director David Petraeus.
Twitter accounts for 40% of the identifiable traffic to jihadist content online.