Monday

25th Mar 2019

Opinion

Fighting the terrorist virus on the internet

  • More than 150,000 videos have been deleted since June 2017 by YouTube - owned by internet giant Google (Photo: Michael McGimpsey)

The battlefield against 21st century terrorism is on the internet.

Daesh may have lost its territorial centre of gravity, Raqqa, but online it is still thriving. Clandestine and infectious, its propaganda spreads from platform to platform with a message of hate, a nihilist interpretation of Islam and detailed instructions on how to kill innocent citizens.

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The most recent attacks in Europe and the US were 'inside jobs': the attackers never travelled to Syria or Iraq but had been influenced, brainwashed and recruited to terrorism on the internet.

Daesh was quick to capitalise on the advantages offered by the internet. Its recruitment strategies are now clearly moving from the physical to the virtual world, with more and more aggressive videos and messages on thousands of social media accounts targeting vulnerable groups and individuals in the West.

While some of the recent attacks seem to have been carried out by 'lone wolves', the virulence of Daesh's propaganda online proves that these attackers were anything but alone.

The fundamental question that we are grappling with today globally, is how to curb the spread of these messages, how to block terrorist content, how to protect impressionable youth from the risks of exposure – and doing this while ensuring that we do not stifle the freedom and the essence of the internet as a magnificent medium of interaction, communication and creation.

In Europe, we have been working on this for some time.

Three years ago we created the EU Internet Forum, bringing together EU governments, and the key internet platforms created by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. In three years, this voluntary cooperation has grown to the global level, and has shifted primarily from content flagging, to now predominantly automated detections of hundreds of thousands of terrorist images, videos and social media posts.

In 2015, we set up a referral mechanism, which to date has assessed more than 42,000 pieces of terrorist content.

At the 2016 forum, the internet companies announced their 'database of hashes' - each hash being a tag for pieces of content to be deleted irrevocably across platforms, with the aim of disrupting the whack-a-mole effect of deleted content reappearing elsewhere.

Today, the database holds more than 40,000 hashes. Its impact is exponential and can grow further.

Today, automatic detection of terrorist content online is at the heart of the forum's strategy. This means that the speed and scope with which terrorist content is removed from the internet today is rising enormously.

Three quarters of the 300,000 Twitter accounts removed in the first half of 2017 were deleted before they could post a first tweet. More than 150,000 Youtube videos were removed since June 2017 – upwards of 80 percent detected automatically.

Facebook has reached 83 percent of originally surfaced and subsequently uploaded copies of that content within one hour of upload.

Instagram, Snapchat and Wordpress

This is progress, but it is not yet enough to turn the tide.

It's not just how fast and how much terrorist content is taken down. It is also by how many platforms. This is why the next important step is to involve more and smaller internet companies, and empower them to do the same.

The forum has already engaged with over 20 companies, and we only plan to expand. Instagram, Snapchat, Wordpress and Yellow are the newest additions – but our reach has to extend further.

In all these efforts, the cooperation between the internet industry and law enforcement is essential so that the appropriate follow-up is given, and that intelligence and trend analysis are not lost.

The internet industry has to share information with law enforcement regularly and transparently. Europol is playing a leading role in facilitating these efforts and this will remain at the top of our to-do list when the EU Internet Forum meets again on 6 December.

This challenge is not only European. The fight against terrorism is international. The European approach has already gone global, and the global internet forum on counter terrorism is scaling up our existing efforts. The G7 and G20 have joined their voices to ours. The momentum is now and there is no time to waste.

If we want to protect our citizens physically from terrorism, we have to start first with the hearts and minds.

The internet is an echo chamber. The terrorist echo is what we need to drown out, whilst empowering credible voices within civil society to ensure that the violent extremist narrative does not go unchallenged.

The companies that built the most innovative and popular platforms are on our side. We are becoming faster and smarter in fighting terrorism online, and we are all fighting for the same cause: preserving the freedoms of the internet while protecting its users worldwide.

Dimitris Avramopoulos is EU commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship

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