Fight against online extremism, where is the EU going?

Hate speech and hate crime incidents, including those committed online, are on the rise in Europe. This is why, in October last year, the European Commission announced the launch of a Forum to improve the cooperation between internet providers and law enforcement agencies to combat online extremism. There is a growing alarm in Europe, especially since the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, over the use of internet and social media as a powerful recruiting tool, notably by the Islamic State group. The Forum against online extremism is certainly a good initiative, but is it enough?

The Forum: a basis for better information sharing?

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said that “we need to counter this abuse of the internet and its growing role in radicalization with determination and a shared plan of action.”  Even though recent events have shown that a better cooperation and sharing of information between countries and different authorities are necessary, this does not seem to be the goal of the platform. It rather aims to instore a dialogue between the European institutions, law enforcement agencies and major IT companies in order to set out together approaches to address terrorist content online. The companies part of the new EU Internet Forum are multinationals including Ask.fm, Google/Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. It seems however unclear how individual companies can contribute to the reduction of hate speech online in the framework of the Forum.

How IT companies can contribute to the fight against online extremism

Current legislation does not cover the liability of operators for the publication of hate content users of social media sites. The liability of bloggers or users of websites is mostly regulated but it is often difficult to trace them back to individuals who can be brought to court. Regulating the liability of operators at the EU level would encourage them to better control the content of their websites. As such IT operators could take up the role of Internet intermediaries and be liable for illegal or unauthorized online content. But with an initiative like the Forum, the European Commission tries to encourage self-regulation by IT companies in general in blocking and reporting hate speech online to law enforcement authorities.

Other measures have been taken to reinforce the fight against online radicalization

After the recent attacks in France, Commissioner Avramopoulos stated he wanted to deepen the EU efforts against terrorism, but, before that, existing instruments needed to be strengthened. These instruments include the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) already active in this field, as well as its future Centre of Excellence which will reinforce the effectiveness of on-going projects and actions. In parallel, the Commission adopted new measures in January 2016 in order to improve the effectiveness of the Schengen Information System (SIS) for counter-terrorism purposes.

Next steps

Commissioner Avramopoulos announced the creation of an EU Internet Referral Unit within Europol. Its task will be mainly to facilitate the detection of terrorist material on the internet and ensure its swift removal. The Commission would also like to centralize all the information on online extremism from Member States through one single agency like Europol. However, a comprehensive European policy dealing with hate speech and hate crime defining concrete policy goals for Member States does not seem to be addressed at the moment.  Alternatively Member States could reinforce their efforts of monitoring the content of websites. But new policies, either at EU or national level, should ensure the respect of freedom of expression and data privacy.