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Automatic takedown – a step too far

Posted by on September 5, 2016.

Europol announced yesterday that “1,677 media content and social media accounts in 6 languages containing terrorist and violent extremist propaganda have been processed for the purpose of referral.” ‘Referral’ by Europol’s Internet Referral Unit effectively means ‘takedown’ without judicial oversight.

Few people will object to the removal of illegal content from the internet. ‘Terrorist and violent extremist propaganda’ is almost certainly illegal; however, a cornerstone of the western concept of democracy is that the judges rather than the enforcers decide what is and what is not illegal. When the police are able to both judge and enforce on their own cognisance, the potential for abuse increases.

The theoretical process for such takedowns is that the public reports its concerns to the referral unit, and the referral unit decides whether to refer its concerns to the relevant service providers. The service providers can then voluntarily decide whether or not to do the take down. It is very difficult for a European service provider to unilaterally go against its own government – and the result is a secretive process that goes against the common consensus for the rule of law. Unknown content gets removed unilaterally by law enforcement with neither public nor judicial oversight.

In June this year Access Now reported, “To date, the unit has established 25 individual IRU national contact points and assessed 7,364 pieces of online content, which triggered 6,399 referral requests with a success rate of 95% for subsequent removal.”

The argument in favour of this process is that extremist propaganda needs to be removed immediately. Indeed, celebrating its first birthday, Europol stated, “The primary objective is to be relevant during the ‘viral’ time of the propaganda.” However, this doesn’t seem to have happened in the current case – it seems unlikely that 1,677 instances could all have been detected at the same time and removed while still in the ‘viral’ period.

These instances will have been batched for simultaneous takedown for maximum publicity. If that can be done, then equally they can be given judicial oversight.

Nobody wants the worst extremist and illegal material to be left on the internet. But turning the police into judge, jury, and secret takedown enforcers is a step too far – it is too close to the government tyranny that Europeans thought they had left behind. If this material is illegal, then it requires independent judicial oversight to declare it illegal. If 1,677 incidents can be compiled for simultaneous action, they can also be compiled for prior judgement. If we can afford to pay for special task forces whose purpose is to detect and remove criminal content, then we must also pay for the judicial oversight that ultimately protects our way of life.

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