G7 to pressure internet giants over rising online extremism

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 October, 2017, 10:59pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 October, 2017, 10:59pm

Tech giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter will come under pressure in Italy this week to go further and faster to help G7 powers tackle the growing threat of extremists online.

A two-day meeting of Group of Seven interior ministers on the Italian island of Ischia begins on Thursday and comes just days after US-backed forces took control of Raqqa in Syria, which had become a byword for atrocities carried out by Islamic State.

Despite the breakthrough in the battle against IS, the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service said on Tuesday that the UK was facing its most severe terrorist threat ever, particularly because of the spread of extremist material online.

MI5 head Andrew Parker said attacks could now accelerate rapidly from inception to action, and “this pace, together with the way extremists can exploit safe spaces online, can make threats harder to detect”.

In a first for a G7 meeting, representatives from Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter will take part in the talks between the seven ministers from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

“The internet plays a decisive role in radicalisation. Over 80 per cent of conversations and radicalisation happen online,” said Italy’s Marco Minniti, who is hosting the summit.

“We need to study a system for automatically blocking specific content. IS contaminated the web with a ‘terror malware’. The providers need to help us block this malware with an automatic antivirus,” he said.

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“We don’t want to impose anything, success will rely on us having a collaborative spirit,” Minniti insisted.

In June, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube announced the launch of an anti-terror partnership, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, aimed at thwarting the spread of extremist content online.

Facebook has launched campaigns in Belgium, Britain, France and Germany to develop “best practices”.

And in September, Twitter touted victories in the battle against tweets promoting extremist violence, saying it has been vanquishing those kinds of accounts before governments even ask.

But last month top Western counterterror chiefs said they need more support from social media companies to detect potential threats, particularly with extremist attacks increasingly being carried out by home-grown “lone wolves”.

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Tough privacy laws and protections enjoyed by the largely US-based web giants are impeding authorities, they said.

Some firms are using software aimed at helping them quickly find and eliminate extremist content, developed by Dartmouth College computer science professor Hany Farid, a senior adviser to the US Counter Extremism Project.

But Farid said it was unclear how broadly it was being deployed and urged the G7 to “give serious consideration to legislative relief” if the tech giants fail to “wake up and respond more aggressively” to abuses of their systems.

While some warn online extremism will be difficult to conquer, with militants simply moving onto the dark web, Italian expert Marco Lombardi said they would not readily give up the mass-audience potential of social media.

Opportunities for “conversion, propaganda and dissemination” lie “on sites capable of influencing thousands of youngsters with a few ‘likes’,” said Lombardi, director of the research centre ITSTIME (Italian Team for Security, Terrorist Issues & Managing Emergencies).

The British government has outlined an internet safety strategy with proposals it is likely to share with fellow G7 members, including an attempt to persuade leading web players to pay for measures to combat dangers.

While Germany has focused particularly on defending itself from cyberattacks, it launched the ZITis surveillance agency last month, which will specialise in “digital forensics” as part of its strategy to fight terrorism.

For its part, despite being labelled an enemy by IS, Japan has escaped attacks to date. Nevertheless, in June its lawmakers passed a controversial bill allowing authorities to target terror conspiracies.