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EC threatens legislation if tech companies fail to act on terrorism and hate speech

European Commission adds to growing political pressure on technology companies by threatening legislation if they fail to remove terrorist posts and hate speech from the internet quickly

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The European Commission (EC) is stepping up pressure on technology companies to increase their efforts to prevent the online dissemination of terrorist materials and content that incites violence and hatred.

Guidelines for tech companies issued today call on internet and social media companies to take steps to proactively detect, remove and prevent the reposting of terrorism and hate-related content online.

The intervention follows calls led by prime minister Theresa May at the UN General Assembly in New York for internet companies to use technology that will allow them to remove terrorist propaganda from the internet within two hours.

The EC warned today that there was a surge of terrorist propaganda, xenophobic and racist speech, but online companies were not acting quickly enough to remove it.

“The situation is not sustainable,” said Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for the digital economy and society. “In more than 28% of cases, it takes more than one week for online platforms to take down illegal content. Today we provide a clear signal to platforms to act more responsibly.”

The Commission is calling on tech companies to meet a minimum set of standards for detecting and removing illegal content, with the threat of further action if they fail to comply.

The standards include investing in automatic detection technologies and developing automated tools that will prevent people reposting terrorist, or hate content, once it has already been removed.

The EC says technology companies should set up dedicated points of contact that will allow police and other specialist organisations to flag up offending content.

And it proposes introducing fixed deadlines – yet to be decided – for tech companies to remove content that could cause serious harm, such as incitement to terrorist acts.

Read more about terrorism, tech and the law

It also calls on technology companies to publish transparency reports detailing the number and types of notices they have received about illegal content.

The Commission said it would monitor the progress made by technology companies, and would consider “legislative measures” if companies failed to proactively detect and remove terrorism and hate material swiftly.

The EC’s move comes amid growing political pressure for tech companies to abandon their position as neutral carriers of information and take responsibility for the material they publish.

It comes after the EC agreed a code of conduct with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft to tackle hate speech and other illegal material.

The code, signed in May 2016, committed the tech companies to develop internal processes and train staff to remove illegal hate-speech material within 24 hours of being alerted to it.

But the Commission said today that not all tech companies are taking a robust approach to terrorist propaganda and hate speech online.

Vera Jourova, commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, said that if the tech firms failed to deliver, the EC would intervene. “We cannot accept a digital Wild West, and we must act,” she said.

Executives of the major internet companies, Europol, the EU Counter Terrorism Co-ordinator and the European Parliament have been working voluntarily to counter terrorist propaganda and hate speech online through the EU internet forum since December 2015.

According to the EU, 80% to 90% of the illegal content referred to the internet companies by Europol has been taken down from the internet.

As part of the project, internet companies developed a prototype “hash” database, which makes it possible to rapidly identify terrorist and other illegal content on their platforms.

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