MEPs want to make internet companies liable for radical content online

French MEP Rachida Dati (EPP), rapporteur on the report about preventing radicalisation

French MEP Rachida Dati (EPP), rapporteur on the report about preventing radicalisation. [European Parliament]

The European Parliament voted yesterday (25 November) in favour of a report that calls for criminal charges against online firms if they do not remove material from their websites that promote terrorism.

MEPs approved the report with 548 votes in favour, 110 against and 36 abstentions. The report is non-binding, but comes ahead of the European Commission’s launch of a new partnership next week to target radicals online with the voluntary help of tech companies.

The Parliament report takes a hardline approach, clashing with the Commission’s voluntary initiative by calling for criminal charges to be imposed on companies.

It focuses on countering material online that could lead to radicalisation, but also includes measures to tackle extremist networks in prisons and freeze passports and financial assets of would-be terrorists.

Other EU initiatives have sprung up this year to monitor social media websites for posts that spread radical messages and aim to recruit fighters for extremist groups, particularly in Syria.

French MEP Rachida Dati (Les Républicains), rapporteur on the own-initiative report, said before yesterday’s vote that it should be a “European crime” if private companies don’t remove material reported to them as radical.

“Companies, when its all about image and money, they get the message,” said Dati, who was previously French minister of justice under Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007-2009.

“These are people who earn a lot of money, they’re not paying enough taxes and they need to be enlisted to fight terrorism and to remove the elicit content,” she added, alluding to probes into sweetheart tax deals some large technology companies allegedly benefitted from in Ireland and Luxembourg.

Critics of Dati’s report argue that threatening internet companies with criminal charges could lead to overzealous censorship and might spur backlash from people whose posts are removed.

“On the one side you’d have internet companies energetically censoring content in order to avoid criminal sanction. On the other side you have the very real chance of a counterproductive effect on any groups that are targeted by energetic censorship,” said Joe McNamee, executive director of NGO European Digital Rights (EDRi).

But the Commission has also faced criticism for its plans to work with companies that volunteer to remove radical content, which could leave social media users no legal backing to oppose those decisions if their posts are unfairly censored.

>>Read: EU, online firms to launch anti-extremism forum

During the plenary debate over Dati’s report on Tuesday (24 November), EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said he would invite the chair of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE), British MEP Claude Moraes (Labour), to the launch of the EU internet forum with internet companies on 3 December.

“One of the key goals of this forum is to improve our cooperation in removing terrorist material that may push our youth towards radicalisation,” Avramopoulos said.

EURACTIV has learned that Google will be part of the EU internet forum. Commission spokesperson Tove Ernst said she had not yet received the names of other companies cooperating.

A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to EURACTIV’s request for comment.

But a document obtained by EDRi through a freedom of information request shows that Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft confirmed to attend a preparatory meeting for the EU internet forum in October 2014.

The Commission describes the EU internet forum’s goals as “reducing accessibility to terrorist content” and “making better use of the internet to challenge the terrorist narrative”.

Ernst told EURACTIV, “The forum will promote more efficient cooperation with the industry to reduce the accessibility of material.” She declined to comment on whether the Commission is considering legislation to make companies liable if they don’t remove radical posts online.

This summer, Europol launched its Internet Referral Unit, which flags extremist content to companies that cooperate with the agency on a voluntary basis.

A Europol spokesperson told EURACTIV that companies remove material at their own discretion once they’re contacted by the agency. The spokesperson declined to share the names or number of companies cooperating with Europol.

>>Read: Social media watchdog: Twitter is the gateway drug for extremists

The European Union has pledged closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism following the killings at Charlie Hebdo in January.

Two priority tracks were identified following a meeting of EU Home Affairs Ministers held in Paris on 11 January:

Hampering the travel movements of terrorists, including so-called “foreign fighters” and European nationals crossing the EU’s external borders. Countering terrorist propaganda, particularly on the Internet, in order to tackle the root causes of radicalisation among young people.

Interior ministers also pledged to “improve the effectiveness” of intelligence sharing related to the movement of foreign terrorist fighters. Cooperation within Europol, Eurojust and Interpol should also intensify, as well as the exchange of relevant information between European police forces, the ministers said.

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