Facebook, Google, Twitter caution Australia against a blanket terrorism content ban

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Representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter on Friday appeared before an Australian security committee as a united front, spruiking the idea that they’re all working together to thwart nefarious activity, such as violent extremist material, from proliferating their respective platforms.

The trio told the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security as part of its inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism in Australia that the effort is a joint one and that the best way forward was to not actually legislate a ban of all mentions of content deemed inappropriate.

“We all know combating terrorism and extremism is a continuous challenge. And unless we can completely eliminate hate and intolerance from society, there’s going to be hate and intolerance online,” Facebook Australia’s head of policy Josh Machin said. “It’s also a shared challenge between governments, industry experts, academia, civil society, and the media.”

Asked about what the Australian government could do to help the platforms with such a mammoth task, Twitter’s senior director of public policy and philanthropy in the APAC region Kathleen Reen said it would be incredibly problematic to use a blunt force instrument like a ban.

“One of the things that’s really important in order to really de-radicalise groups to ensure healthy, cohesive, inclusive, and diverse communities, is to make sure that there’s awareness, discussion, interrogation, and debate, and research about what the problems actually are,” she said.

“If you ban all discussion at all about it … you may find yourself effectively chasing it off our platforms where the companies are working to address these issues, and pushing it out into other platforms.”

Reen suggested, instead, for “deep work” with academic and civil society experts, as some examples, that considers how to create “cohesive communities when you’re also trying to stop those bad actors”.

“To be clear, stopping the conversation entirely won’t address the problem in our view. In fact, it’ll make it worse,” she said.

Facebook, Twitter, Google-owned YouTube, as well as Microsoft in June 2017 stood up the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) as a collective effort to prevent the spread of terrorist and violent extremist content online. There are now 13 companies involved.

The GIFCT shifted its focus in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack and the call to arms New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden made by way of the Christchurch Call.

Reen said the Call was a “watershed moment”.

“It was a moment for convening governments and industry and civil society together to unite behind our mutual commitment for a safe, secure, and open internet. There was also a moment to recognise that wherever evil manifests itself, it affects us all,” she said.

Reen said the group is hoping to add more names to the GIFCT.

“We’re looking forward to expanding these partnerships in future because terrorism can’t be solved by one or a small group of companies alone,” she said.

Part of expanding the platforms involves working with smaller, less known platforms, with concerns an unintended consequence of eliminating hate from the more popular ones will result in echo chambers elsewhere.

“We know that removing all discussion of particular viewpoints at times, no matter how uncomfortable they may seem, we’ll only chase extremist thinking to darker corners of the internet, to other platforms, and to other services, services that may be available in Australia,” Reen said. “Services that may or may not have been invited to participate in such conversations and critical debates about what to do next.”

Google Australia’s head of government affairs and public policy Samantha Yorke believes there is clearly an opportunity for the big mainstream platforms to play a role.

“The only ‘watch out’ for us all in the context of this particular conversation is just around privacy issues that would inevitably pop up around behavioural profiles and sharing information about specific identifiable users across different companies and platforms,” Yorke said. “There’s some obvious areas where there would be privacy implications there, but … it’s an area that I think is ripe for further exploration.”

Twitter initiated a URL sharing project, which has since been inserted into the greater GIFCT work. She said since inception, about 22,000 shared URLs have been put into that database.

“It speaks to the importance of experimentation,” she said. “And I think it also speaks to the importance of transparency around these processes.”

Similarly, YouTube also has an “intel desk”, which Yorke said is essentially tasked with surveying what’s happening on the web more broadly, identifying emerging themes or patterns of behaviours that might be taking place off the YouTube platform, but which may manifest in some way onto YouTube.

“It’s seeking to develop a little bit more of a holistic view of what’s going on out there,” she said.

The trio agreed with Reen’s view that there is the opportunity for the Australian government to potentially dig deeper into these partnerships more.

Appearing before the committee on Thursday, Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant was asked why a Google search for the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto returns results.

“We’re not going to the war with the internet,” she said.

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