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Tech giants under increased EU pressure over illegal content

02 October 2017, 22:07 CET
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Tech giants under increased EU pressure over illegal content

Photo © Anatoly Vartanov - Fotolia

(BRUSSELS) - The EU Commission presented guidelines and principles for online platforms to step up efforts to proactively prevent, detect and remove illegal content inciting hatred, violence and terrorism online.

The aim is to increase the proactive prevention, detection and removal of illegal content which incites hatred, violence and terrorism online.

The increasing availability and spreading of terrorist material and content that incites violence and hatred online is a serious threat to the security and safety of EU citizens. It also undermines citizens' trust and confidence in the digital environment – a key engine of innovation, growth and jobs.

The guidance includes safeguards to avoid over-removal and ensure transparency and the protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech.

A clear principle is that the rule of law applies online just as much as offline. "We cannot accept a digital Wild West, and we must act," said Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova: "The code of conduct I agreed with Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft shows that a self-regulatory approach can serve as a good example and can lead to results." However she warned that "if the tech companies don't deliver, we will do it."

With the surge of illegal content online, including online terrorist propaganda and xenophobic and racist speech inciting violence and hatred, the Commission believes online platforms have an increasingly important role to play and need to step up their social responsibility.

The new guidance calls on online platforms to further boost their efforts to prevent the spread of illegal content. Given their increasingly important role in providing access to information, the EU executive says it expects online platforms to take swift action over the coming months, in particular in the area of terrorism and illegal hate speech – which is already illegal under EU law, both online and offline.

As a first step to effectively fight illegal content online, the Commission is proposing common tools to swiftly and proactively detect, remove and prevent the reappearance of such content:

  • Detection and notification: Online platforms should cooperate more closely with competent national authorities, by appointing points of contact to ensure they can be contacted rapidly to remove illegal content. To speed up detection, online platforms are encouraged to work closely with trusted flaggers, i.e. specialised entities with expert knowledge on what constitutes illegal content. Additionally, they should establish easily accessible mechanisms to allow users to flag illegal content and to invest in automatic detection technologies.
  • Effective removal: Illegal content should be removed as fast as possible, and can be subject to specific timeframes, where serious harm is at stake, for instance in cases of incitement to terrorist acts. The issue of fixed timeframes will be further analysed by the Commission. Platforms should clearly explain to their users their content policy and issue transparency reports detailing the number and types of notices received. Internet companies should also introduce safeguards to prevent the risk of over-removal.
  • Prevention of re-appearance: Platforms should take measures to dissuade users from repeatedly uploading illegal content. The Commission strongly encourages the further use and development of automatic tools to prevent the re-appearance of previously removed content.

The Commission sees the new communication as a 'first step', with follow-up initiatives depending how the online platforms' actions implement the guidelines. It says it will carefully monitor progress made by the online platforms over the next months and assess whether additional measures are needed in order to ensure the swift and proactive detection and removal of illegal content online, including possible legislative measures to complement the existing regulatory framework. The work will be completed by May 2018.

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