EU under pressure to broker online terrorist content agreement

Kashmiri Muslim demonstrators take part in a protest in downtown area of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, 5 June 2019. [Photo: EPA-EFE/FAROOQ KHAN]

The European Council and Commission are under pressure to make headway on rules to stamp out online terrorist content, the substance of which could provide a precedent for the upcoming Digital Services Act, an MEP involved with the matter has said.

As part of the rules, online platforms would be obliged to remove flagged terrorist content within a one hour timeframe, in addition to potentially introducing ‘proactive measures’ that could take the form of upload filters.

While the Parliament is against the idea of upload filters being included in the text, the Council and Commission both support this inclusion.

A compromise text submitted by Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee to the Council and Commission, recently published by Politico, made a number of crucial revisions, including on the timeframe. MEPs would now rather to see flagged content removed ‘as soon as is possible’.

In terms of upload filters, the Parliament prefers to employ the term ‘specific measures’ rather than ‘proactive measures’, while stating that hosting providers should instead include a commitment to “address the misuse of their service for the dissemination of terrorist content online” in their terms and conditions.

The document adds that platforms should do so “in a diligent, proportionate and non-discriminatory” manner with due regards for the protection of fundamental rights, “with a view to avoiding the removal of material which is not terrorist content”.

Talks have stalled since coronavirus hit Europe, with the most recent negotiations between the EU institutions postponed without a clear resumption date in sight. It is the responsibility of rapporteur Patryk Jaki (ECR), along with LIBE coordinators, to set a new date.

Commission keen to get the ball rolling

EURACTIV understands that bilateral talks between the Council and Commission are on the agenda in order to address the Parliament’s concerns, with the EU executive in particular keen to get the ball rolling.

One Commission official informed EURACTIV that “from our point of view it’s important to make progress quickly because terrorist content online is precisely the sort of activity that doesn’t at all stop in the current situation.”

Pirate MEP Patrick Breyer, who is a shadow rapporteur on the file, believes that the Commission’s fast-tracking of the procedure could be down to the fact that the executive would like to set a precedent for the upcoming Digital Services Act (DSA), which is due to be presented in Q4.

“I’m not sure that another trilogue anytime soon would be the best idea in terms of moving forward,” Breyer told EURACTIV. “Member states first must ensure that they are all in agreement on a common position.”

Digital Services Act

Breyer also said that he believes the Commission would like to ensure that the online terrorist content file is wrapped up before the substance of the DSA is worked out. That is why the executive is seeking to find a compromise soon, the MEP believes.

There is also a degree of uncertainty about how long a DSA proposal could be postponed or even brought forward. It will seek to establish a far-reaching regulatory framework for the online ecosystem, with new rules likely to be introduced across areas such as hate speech, political adversing and disinformation.

Speaking at a recent policy event in Brussels, Acting Head of Unit of the Online Platforms and e-Commerce Unit in DG Connect, Prabhat Agarwal, said that the DSA public consultation is ready to go, but approval still needs to be granted from the ‘control tower’ and delays could be in the offing while senior members of staff are caught up in the COVID-19 crisis.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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