Patrolling the new frontier: Regulating online extremism

A month after the horrific attack in Christchurch, which was live-streamed on Facebook, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern said: “It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism, and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism.”

We wholeheartedly agree. Neo-Nazi and other far-right material, alongside Islamist and far-left content, spread swiftly on Facebook, with a potential to reach thousands in a matter of hours. Facebook is not alone; Social media platforms have been used by extremists to radicalise and inspire acts of terrorism across the world. Exposure to online extremism is not the sole cause of radicalisation, but in combination with other risk factors, it can weaponise a latent disposition towards terrorist violence.

Preventing online extremism has become a priority for policy-makers in Europe. In the U.K., the Home Office and DCMS have proposed to regulate internet platforms in the Online Harms White Paper, which considers a wide range of harms, including extremism and terrorism.

We offer several recommendations. First, a clear definition of extremist content can prevent uncertainty and over-blocking, and help ensure content is judged consistently by human moderators. Once human moderators have determined something is extremist content, platforms should use hashing technology to screen out known extremist content at the point of upload. One example of such technology is the Counter Extremism Project’s eGlyph – a tool developed by Hany Farid, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley and member of the Counter Extremism Project’s advisory board.

eGlyph is based on ‘robust hashing’ technology, capable of swiftly comparing uploaded content to a database of known extremist images, videos, and audio files, thereby disrupting the spread of such content. We have made this ground-breaking technology available at no cost to organisations wishing to combat online violent extremism.

Use of these technologies is critical because a video can gather hundreds of views, and spread onto smaller, encrypted platforms — where it will be nearly impossible to find — in a matter of hours. In the past few years, extremists have become increasingly active in encrypted platforms. The regulator should, therefore, mandate that end-to-end encryption platforms use specific encryption protocols that allow for the use of hashing technology to detect known extremist content, or deploy hashing technology at the point of transmitting a message. These will allow companies to detect known harmful material, while maintaining users’ privacy.

This legislation needs to be flexible enough to protect vulnerable people as technology changes, while at the same time maintaining free speech, privacy and freedom of expression. It is important to strike the right balance between safety and rights — avoiding illiberal overreach — but it is never simple to do so. While social media regulation should be no different from offline norms, including prohibitions on inciting violence, hate crimes and acts of terrorism, the question of who interprets and regulates behaviour on transnational platforms remains fraught with difficulty and must be the subject of thorough public debate.

Ian Acheson will speak at a conference event titled ‘Big Tech and Extremism: Can we balance liberalism with countering extremist content?’ It is hosted by CEP and Rights, Liberties, Justice, and will take place on Saturday 14 September between 13:00-14:30 at the BIC.

* Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy. He is an Advisory Board Member of the Counter Extremism Project, Ian Acheson FRSA is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP).

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  • This piece conflates terrorism and extremism multiple times, starting with the quote from Jacinda Ardern.

    What does “radicalise” mean? Radicals were one of the political groups which founded the Liberal Party.

    The authors of this piece are involved with the Counter Extremism Project which was founded by American neo-cons with a very distinct political agenda. Who funds the Counter Extremism Project? How much do the authors get paid for acting as advisers to it? As someone from the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, Ian Acheson has a very distinct agenda which includes seeking immunity from prosecution for former British soldiers for murders committed by them in Northern Ireland.

    The idea that our access to information to be restricted based on an algorithm produced by these sort of people’s views of “extremism” is horrifying to me.

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