Information screening such as ETIAS and ESTA are essential for the safety of international borders. The European Agenda on Security are overseeing online security as well as implementing new border controls. Their focus is on cyber-crime and terrorism cyber-crime. This is where unified cross-border initiatives can be effective in policing and prevention.
One of these initiatives is the EU Internet Forum. It represents one of the key security commitments announced by the Commission in April 2015. Their discussions will look at ways to protect the public from terrorist propaganda. It will also ensure that potential communications between terrorists are monitored and shut down. There will also be conversations about how to use the internet to challenge hate speech and radicalisation.
The forum brings together many high profile public and private entities. For instance, EU Interior Ministers, Europol, the EU Counter Terrorism Co-ordinator and the European Parliament. Getting the big tech companies onside is crucial. Given that both the solution and the problem are online, the forum will be reliant on the co-operation of web giants.
Representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook and YouTube recently attended the latest EU Internet Forum. They took this opportunity to announce plans to delete extremist content. They have agreed to create a shared industry database of digital fingerprints, called ‘hashes’. So when one platform identifies terrorist imagery, they can alert others. They can then review the content and decide whether it contravenes their own content policies. They hope that other social media platforms will get involved.
In fairness, the extreme images violate all providers’ policies. But it is the philosophy of corporations collaborating with member states that is new. Authorities have had protracted battles with tech companies. As private concerns, they are obliged to abide by relevant national laws. But they have been under pressure about privacy, advertising, taxation, and competition. These companies are vast in scope and influence so I wonder what else is under discussion.
Governments have a duty to protect citizens from terrorist activities. But they have to balance users’ freedom of expression. Facebook and others were swift to reassure their users that they will share no identifiable information. They say they are committed to protecting users’ privacy and their ability to express themselves.
The forum is aware of the importance of citizens’ freedoms. As they point out, tackling online hate speech is a delicate exercise. It requires somebody to define where freedom of expression stops and where hate speech starts. It matters who this ‘somebody’ is. A legislature will have differing views from Facebook, the general population, or a ‘freedom fighter’.
The focus is currently on terrorism. Some commentators have expressed concerns that if governments can exert pressure on this, what else is next? Intellectual property or health information are both areas of contention. These companies hold vast amounts of information which governments might want to see. In the meantime it is reassuring we can use online data to protect innocent citizens. We need to prevent atrocities such that we have seen in France and other parts of Europe.