Major technology companies – Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube are uniting forces to help limit the spread of terrorist content online.
Social media platforms have come under increasing pressure in recent years from governments across the globe that wanted them to find ways of blocking posts promoting violence or hate as Islamic State and other terror groups have used the platforms as a tool for recruiting and radicalisation.
The companies themselves have argued they want to be open to free speech – but without being used to promote violence or hate.
YouTube and Facebook are already using hashes to automatically remove extremist content, but many other tech companies relied until now mainly on users flagging up suspicious content.
Together, the companies said they will create a shared industry database that will be used to identify this content, including what they describe as the “most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos” that have been removed from their respective services.
The content will be hashed using unique digital fingerprints, which is how its identification and removal can be handled more easily and efficiently by the company’s computer systems and algorithms.
By collectively tracking that information, the companies said they could make sure a video posted on Twitter, for instance, did not appear later on Facebook.
The database is expected to be up and running by early next year and more companies besides the four founders to join the partnership, the companies will focus on technology solutions, research and knowledge sharing.
The four companies that are already partnering with organizations such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anti-Defamation League and Global Network Initiative to identify how best to counter extremism and online hate, while respecting freedom of expression and privacy issued a joint statement that read:
“There is no place for content that promotes terrorism on our hosted consumer services. When alerted, we take swift action against this kind of content in accordance with our respective policies.”
The companies say they would share data “to help identify potential terrorist content on our respective hosted consumer platforms”.
The joint statement did not say what type of technology would be used for the venture although it did say it would be based on a shared industry database of “hashes” – or digital fingerprints – that identify violent content.
The statement added:
“Each company will independently determine what image and video hashes to contribute to the shared database. No personally identifiable information will be shared, and matching content will not be automatically removed.
Each company will continue to apply its own policies and definitions of terrorist content when deciding whether to remove content when a match to a shared hash is found.”
Facebook also notes that personal information will not be shared, though it didn’t say that this information is not collected. The government can still go through legal means to find out from which accounts the content originated, and other info as before. The companies will continue to make their own determinations about how they handle those government requests and when those requests are disclosed.
The new database will be continually updated as the companies uncover new terrorist images or videos which can then be hashed and added to this shared resource.
Facebook says while the effort is beginning with the top social networks, the larger goal is to make this database available to other companies in the future. “We hope this collaboration will lead to greater efficiency as we continue to enforce our policies to help curb the pressing global issue of terrorist content online,” it states.
A recent study by the Global Network Initiative, a group that represents academics, investors, civil society organizations and companies, has cautioned against the human rights risks of censoring online terror content.
The European Commission (EU) had warned that time is running out for US tech companies to prove they are serious about tackling hate speech. Meanwhile, the German Justice Minister had threatened to file criminal charges against Facebook for failing to curb hate speech from neo-Nazi affiliated groups. Well, here is Facebook joining forces with other social media platforms trying to find a lasting solution to the issue.