Four internet superpowers, Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube, and Twitter, recently announced a new partnership that puts these private companies in the rather unique position of acting as a sort of INTERPOL for online content dissemination. The companies intend to counter the spread of terrorism-related content by creating a “shared industry database” of images and videos deemed to be promoting terrorism, which will be used as “digital fingerprints” to identify similar content across the various platforms. All four organizations already have their own policies for the identification and removal of users who seem to be promoting violence and terrorist activity, of course, but this move towards increased collaboration is unprecedented—at least in the private sector. Now that access to the internet is a universal human right, however, along with freedom of speech and the right to privacy, these private firms may be wading into a quagmire of international human rights issues.
Intelligence sharing to combat suspected terrorist activity is nothing new. Government agencies have long been collecting and sharing information on suspected terrorists (and other criminals). The Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), for example, has had an Information Sharking Task Force in place since 9/11, which coordinates intelligence activities and facilitates information transfers between itself and the Department of Justice (DOJ), the U.S. Marshals Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force. In the UK, the Security Service (MI5), MI6, the police, and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have improved their sharing of intelligence since the London bombings in 2007, and their approach to collaboration has been credited for its effectiveness over the last ten years. The UK and US have a very effective partnership, and there are cross-border alliances between EU states, African Union countries, and South Korea and Japan, among others.
What is new is the private sector’s effort to gather intelligence and shut down potential terrorist actors. Until recently, social media sites were just something people went on to pass the time: posting photos, chatting with friends, getting “Likes,” and leaving comments. Now that an estimated 2.3 billion people around the world are on social media sites—of a total of around 3.5 billion internet users—networking sites are finding themselves in positions of responsibility. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have all been under pressure as of late to remove any photos, videos, or posts that appear to support terrorism. Additionally, government agencies have come to rely on social media sites to track potential terrorist activity and terrorist sympathizers, though it is not clear exactly how much collaboration occurs between sites like Twitter and Facebook and the “Feds.”
At the same time, these companies have fallen under fire for seeming to promote censorship by removing posts that, at first glance, may violate the terms of service, but have a deeper context, like the iconic “Napalm girl” photo. Balancing between the two pressures is a difficult act, and the social media giants may be hoping that announcing this partnership will help relieve some of concerns that they are not taking enough steps to remove terrorist propaganda. As the partnership moves forward in 2017, however, they will have to exercise caution. Use of social media is, of course, voluntary, but access to such sites is now a human right. Too heavy of a hand could see protests from human rights advocates, who can point out not only violations to freedom of speech and right to privacy, but also to violations of basic internet access. Too soft of a hand could see protests that they are still not doing enough to remove images and videos that promote terrorism.
Facebook, Microsoft, Youtube, and Twitter are definitely not in an enviable position. They have evolved from being social networks to quasi-law enforcement agencies, tracking users across international borders in order to prevent the spread of terrorist propaganda, and yet have none of the limitations imposed on government bodies through the constitution or international accords. It’s highly unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg will hire his own mercenary army to personally monitor and deal with suspected terrorists, but starting an information sharing program with other social media giants in order to shut down terrorist propaganda is a small step in that direction. If these companies are going to use coordinated efforts to monitor content, users should demand that their processes be transparent, avoiding possible censorship and privacy violations, as well as possible breaches of the right to internet.