By Cathal Keane
Terrorism is inherently a transnational phenomenon. Consequentially, acts of terrorism in Europe require a coordinated response from EU member states. With significant inflows of returning jihadists to Europe in recent times, there is a new sense of urgency for member states to increase cooperation and strive for greater integration in the area of counter-terrorism. The European Commission’s September 2018 proposal to combat terrorist content on the internet represents a significant step towards curbing what Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock has dubbed a ‘second wave’ of terrorism in Europe (Willsher, 2018).
The attacks of September 11th 2001 were a “normative defining point” for European integration (Kaunert and Léonard, 2018), and from this point onwards, EU leaders began to implore member states to develop a coordinated counter-terrorism policy. The threat of terrorism within Europe’s borders remains quite high despite the declining influence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The 205 failed, foiled or completed terrorist attacks reported by EU member states in 2017 represents a 44% increase on the previous year’s figures (Europol, 2018).
As radicalised jihadists return to Europe, a crucial factor in how effective this potential ‘second wave’ of terrorism might be is the ability of terrorists to disseminate propaganda and recruit other potential terrorists on the internet. Over 150 different social media platforms have been reported as being abused by terrorists for the purposes of spreading propaganda (Europol, 2018), with this figure likely having increased since the statistics were compiled in 2017. Minister of the Interior of Austria, Herbert Kickl, highlighted the detrimental impact of online terrorist activity by noting that “online terrorist content has played a key role in almost every terrorist attack we have seen in Europe” (Council of the EU, 2018).
It has become apparent that online regulation of terrorist activity must catch up with its offline counterpart in order to adequately and completely address the dangers posed by modern terrorist actors. The ability of so-called ‘home-grown terrorists’ to commit deadly acts of violence is a direct consequence of online terrorist activity, whereby individuals can be radicalised in their country of residence (e.g. an EU member state) without ever having ventured abroad to join a terrorist organisation (Europol, 2018).
In September 2018, the Commission proposed new rules aimed at removing terrorist content from the internet. The proposal builds on the work of the EU Internet Forum, which has been in place since December 2015. The Forum is a voluntary partnership between EU Home Affairs Ministers and a variety of stakeholders in the internet industry, with the goal of preventing terrorist groups from exploiting the internet for their benefit (European Commission, 2018). Positive progress has been made under the EU Internet Forum, but the failure of online platforms to sufficiently engage in voluntary efforts to remove terrorist material from the internet has limited any considerable advancements being made in the area of counter-terrorism.
The Commission’s September 2018 proposal aims to address the issue of integration in this area by seeking to increase cooperation and enhance uniformity across all EU member states. The proposed rules include a legally binding obligation on internet platforms to remove terrorist content within one hour of their appearance online, on the basis that this is the “critical window” in which damage is done (Juncker, 2018). The recommended penalty to be imposed in the instance of a failure to remove terrorist content is quite substantial: a fine of up to 4% of the service provider’s global turnover for the last business year (European Commission, 2018).
At surface level, the feasibility of implementing an adequate takedown procedure appears questionable. Social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter have developed impressive technology to identify potential terrorist content. Facebook claims that 99% of Daesh and Al-Qaeda content on their platform is automatically removed before it can be seen by the general public, with 14.3 million pieces of terrorist content being removed in 2018 alone (Waugh, 2019). Meanwhile, Twitter claims to have a “zero-tolerance policy” towards terrorism, having suspended 1.2 million suspected terrorist accounts in 2018 (Waugh, 2019).
However, despite these glowing progress reports from the behemoths of the social media world, it’s important to consider the other 150+ social media platforms that are used by terrorists for the purposes of propaganda. The proposed Commission rules would apply to all hosting service providers, many of which are small companies that are unequipped to implement effective takedown procedures.
The Commission offers a promising solution to this issue, pointing to the EU Internet Forum as a “space for cooperation and exchange” between various actors in the internet industry (European Commission, 2018). However, this fails to account for the substantial financial burden that would be placed on smaller companies in order to adopt the proposed rules. An example of the resources required to police online content is the hiring of over 10,000 employees by YouTube in 2018, solely for the purpose of monitoring offensive content (Levin, 2017). Smaller companies would be required to invest in similar resources, albeit on a significantly reduced scale.
The discretion afforded to member states to deal with matters on a case-by-case basis may give smaller companies the necessary protection from excessive fines. The Commission (2018) notes that national authorities should consider the “economic standing” of the provider, which would appear to address the problems facing smaller entities. However, in many ways, this would inhibit the desired uniformity across member states. Thus, a balance will have to be reached between having uniform rules across the EU while also avoiding the imposition of harsh penalties on smaller companies.
Nonetheless, the Commission’s proposal marks a positive step towards much-needed integration in the area of online counter-terrorism. The imposition of uniform obligations on member states and online platforms in those member states is, perhaps, lacking in financial support for smaller companies, but nonetheless signifies necessary progress in pursuit of an effective, integrated response to the threat of terrorism in Europe.
Council of the EU (2018). Terrorist content online: Council adopts negotiating position on new rules to prevent dissemination. [online] Available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2018/12/06/terrorist-content-online-council-adopts-negotiating-position-on-new-rules-to-prevent-dissemination/ [Accessed 14 Mar. 2019].
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Kaunert, C. and Léonard, S. (2018). The collective securitisation of terrorism in the European Union. West European Politics, 42(2), pp.261-277.
Levin, S. (2017). Google to hire thousands of moderators after outcry over YouTube abuse videos. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/04/google-youtube-hire-moderators-child-abuse-videos [Accessed 14 Mar. 2019].
Waugh, R. (2019). Tackling hate speech and terrorism on social media. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/information-age/hate-speech-and-terrorism-on-social-media/ [Accessed 14 Mar. 2019].
Willsher, K. (2018). Returning jihadists ‘threaten new wave of terror in Europe’. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/19/returning-jihadists-threaten-new-wave-of-terror-in-europe [Accessed 14 Mar. 2019].
Cathal Keane is a final year BCL (Law with Politics) student in UCD. This blog post was written as part of the coursework for INRL20160 – Introduction to EU Politics.