Terrorist Content: The Clear and Present Danger

He was a sociable, outgoing young man, happy to stop and chat with his neighbours, always keen to offer help to those who needed it. But he started spending more and more time in his bedroom, becoming increasingly surly and aggressive. His worried parents began to wonder what he was up to in there; why he seemed to have rejected them.

Then, one day, while sitting in the kitchen, they heard him come down the stairs and go out the front door.

The next time they saw him, it was on the television, as he ploughed a hired van into a crowd of Saturday shoppers on a busy high street. It was also the last time they saw him, as he was shot dead by armed officers after emerging from the crashed van clutching a knife.

Police later went through his hard drive, and a story emerged – after watching a jihadist video calling for violence against the West, he began to access more and more content of a similar ilk; videos, images, posts. He was sucked in to a world of hateful and evil propaganda, locking himself up and being slowly radicalised, until he was willing to lash out against the society and the values he had been brought up in and carry out his odious attack.

This scenario isn’t the product of an active imagination. It’s an all-too plausible alternative ending to the kinds of story we hear about in real life – one such example took place recently in France, although thankfully, in that case the French authorities were able to intervene before any attack was carried out.

But it underlines the dangers posed by terrorist content online. Unlike large-scale attacks needing significant amounts of organisation and resources, so-called ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks can be nearly impossible to predict. One person with low-tech implements like a rented van and a knife can cause horrific damage. And that person is rarely a battle-hardened veteran of Da’esh’s failed ground wars. Usually, they are someone brought up in Europe, who has been radicalised here, often through terrorist content on the internet.

The damage such content can do is scary. Nearly every single one of the attacks in Europe in recent years has had a link to the internet, whether through incitement to commit an attack, instruction on how to carry it out or glorification of the deadly results.

And it spreads like a virus across the internet, from platform to platform, at great speed – three quarters of all links to Da’esh propaganda, for example, are shared within four hours of release.

There is a need for greater action against this clear and present danger. If it’s illegal offline, it should be illegal online – if you tried to hand out flyers in your local town calling for carnage on the streets you would be rightly arrested.

The onus is on the platforms, big and small, not to allow themselves to unwittingly be used to spread terrorist content. We work with the large platforms on a voluntary basis, especially through the EU Internet Forum, but in this case that approach was not producing the necessary results.

That’s why we proposed a regulation last September, announced by President Juncker in his State of the Union speech, to make action against terrorist content online compulsory. The proposal contained three obligations: Removal orders to make it mandatory for platforms to act within one hour when notified of terrorist content by the police or judicial authorities; the obligation for any platform being used to spread terrorist content to use proactive measures to detect this content and prevent it from reappearing; and the requirement for Member States to invest enough resources to enable law enforcement to detect terrorist content and issue removal orders. There are robust safeguards, including effective complaint mechanisms and provision for judicial recourse, as well as effective sanctions – fines of up to 4% of global turnover in the case of systematic failure to comply with removal orders.

And it’s important to emphasise that this is not censorship, in any shape or form. Respect for fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, is a founding principle of our society and is at the heart of our proposal. We have gone to great lengths to ensure proper respect for the freedom of speech and of expression, including through legal recourse for both platforms and content owners.

In defining a piece of content as terrorist content, its context needs to be taken into account, and material published for educational, journalistic or research purposes should be protected.

The threat posed by terrorism is all too real. It has not gone away, nor is it likely to any time soon. The friends and family of the victims of Chérif Chekatt, the Strasbourg shooter, will know that only too well.

But we can do more to prevent such attacks from happening, especially online, with the internet now the single most important tool still at the disposal of Da’esh. And the time for action is now. The legislative process to get our proposal approved is ongoing, and we need to work at full speed if is to be finalised before the European elections in May 2019. There is not a moment to lose.

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Sir Julian King is European Commissioner for the Security Union.