Internet Giants and Other Fairy Tales

August 25, 2016

The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has produced a report which includes a pretty clear condemnation of the steps taken by the ‘Internet giants’ in combatting online terrorist propaganda and information of use to terrorists. I did my best to report it as I would normally and deserve some sort of medal* for resisting the urge to append comments. The phrase chosen to headline the press release about a wide-ranging report on ‘Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point’ was ‘Internet giants “consciously failing” to tackle extremism on the web’. A reading of the report itself shows that ‘consciously failing’ is at best harsh; I think it is a misrepresentation. Keith Vaz MP went on to say that the named companies are ‘passing the buck by hiding behind their supranational legal status’.

I am not going to bore you with the assumption in the report that the Internet is a bad fairy – you know that is pretty well a given. Nor will I dwell on the failure to acknowledge that most terrorism is in countries where recruitment is by rather more orthodox means than via Twitter etc – you know that too. Let’s move on.

As regards its views on social media, perhaps the best thing that can be said about this report is that few will take notice of it. My favourite part is its insistence on ignoring its own evidence. For example, in a non-tech area the report states (at para 111), ‘[m]ost of the communities that one might expect to say that radicalisation was present within them gave little evidence that they believed it was on their doorstep’ but that is not because radicalisation is not present, says the report, it is because they have not been educated into recognising radicalisation (or, as they put it,‘the extent to which Prevent has reached those it needs to is limited’). That sounds like the 1984 edition of Alice in Wonderland to me.

In the more relevant areas concerning the social media giants, the Home Affairs Committee was told that Google, Facebook and Twitter’ took their responsibility in this area very seriously and cooperated with security agencies as necessary’. They stressed that, while there was no easy way to identify extremist content on the internet, they all had teams of staff who manually search for potentially extremist content online and then make assessments on taking it down and suspending accounts. Twitter said its team who did this work consisted of “more than a hundred” staff. Twitter confirmed that between mid-2015 and February 2016, it had suspended over 125,000 accounts globally that were linked to terrorists while Google told the Committee that it had removed over 14 million videos globally in 2014 (which related to all kinds of abuse). They support community groups and NGOs with training to tackle online extremism. They have all signed up to the new EU rules on taking down illegal hate speech. The Committee seems to accept all this (set out at paras 34 to 36) but by para 38 we have ‘The internet has a huge impact in contributing to individuals turning to extremism, hatred and murder. Social media companies are consciously failing to combat the use of their sites to promote terrorism and killings’ and the assertion that employing a few hundred people to combat terrorism is inadequate. There is no apparent basis for this assertion. I suspect that, if asked to name the number of employees that was adequate, the Committee would be into 10 figures. And, before you know it, the Wild West is being cited – a sure sign that serious discussion has ended.

The Committee goes on to say that ‘what cannot appear legally in the print or broadcast media, namely inciting hatred and terrorism, should not be allowed to appear on social media’, which (unless I have missed something pretty big) is the law now.

What seems to be at the root of this is the Committee’s failure to understand that policing the Internet is not easy and that enforcement action against those breaking the hate speech rules is not easy either. What ‘consciously failing’ might mean (and I am being very kind to the Committee) is that the Internet giants know that they have not managed to combat online extremism successfully but that’s because complete success in this area is simply impossible. I don’t know why the Committee found this difficult to grasp because the report says that Baroness Shields told them that ‘Daesh and other groups [operate] a “dispersed network of accounts” which means that they are capable of reconfiguring their internet content in response to sites being suspended’ and that ‘swarm casting allows radical sympathizers to rapidly and automatically respond and reorganise their communications to ensure a near persistent presence of their messages on social media platforms’.

Maybe, just maybe, they wanted a good headline.

*(If you get a damehood for sitting on a dancing horse, I probably deserve an MBE for the exercise of such restraint.)