Legislation

EU passes law requiring online platforms to quickly block ‘terrorist content’

Commissioner Ylva Johansson speaks during a press conference on September 4, 2020 in Brussels
Commissioner Ylva Johansson speaks during a press conference on September 4, 2020 in Brussels Pool/AFP/Archivos

Online platforms will have one hour to remove or block terrorist content, or face considerable fines, under a law passed by the European Parliament Wednesday. Proponents say it will make it more difficult for terrorists to incite or plan attacks and recruit members. Rights groups warn it will have a negative impact on free speech.

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"This regulation will make it more difficult for terrorists to abuse the internet to recruit online, to incite attacks online, to glorify their atrocities online,” said Ylva Johansson, EU Home Affairs Commissioner, presenting the legislation.

“Without online manuals to tell you how, it’s harder to make bombs. Without flashy propaganda videos, it’s harder to poison the minds of young people. Without streaming attacks online, it’s harder to inspire copycat attacks.”

The EU executive proposed the legislation in 2018, and MEPs passed it on Wednesday evening without a vote, as no amendments had been added to a agreement made in December between EU member countries.

"The attack on the young police officer in Rambouillet, the murder of teacher Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine recently showed that social networks have a considerable relaying and amplification effect on calls to violence and terrorist propaganda,” said centrist French MEP Fabienne Keller.

The regulation targets text, images, audio or video recordings or live transmissions that “incite, solicit or contribute to terrorist offences, provide instructions for such offences or solicit people to participate in a terrorist group.”

One hour to take down content

Once a service provider receives a removal order from the “competent authority” of a member state, it has an hour to remove or block access, or risk a fine that could go as high as four percent of the company's global turnover.

The request can be made to a platform operating in another EU member state, and in that case the host country would have 72 hours to assess whether the request was justified.

Content used for educational, journalistic, artistic or research purposes are exempt and “will not be considered terrorist content”, as is material “used for awareness-raising purposes”.

Rights groups have raised concerns that the law will curb freedom of expression. About sixty human rights groups, journalist associations and advocacy organisations, including Amnesty international and Reporters without borders, called on MEPs not to pass the law.

Lack of judicial oversight

In a letter sent to MEPs before the vote, they warned that the one-hour time limit to remove so-called terrorist content gives an incentive to platforms to use automated moderation tools, which are “characterised by a profound lack of transparency and accuracy”.

Automated tools cannot differentiate speech about terrorism from terrorist content itself, which will mean legal content, like news or activist content, will be removed.

“Platforms already remove massive quantities of content documenting violence in warzones, uploaded by survivors, civilians, or journalists, as tracked by the Syrian and Yemeni Archives, which can hinder accountability efforts,” wrote the groups. The regulation will only reinforce the trend.

They also raise concerns that the “lack of judicial oversight” of the authorities giving the removal orders is a “risk to freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion and access to information”.

The rapporteur of the legislation, conservative Polish MEP Patryk Jaki, said it was a "good and balanced text" that upheld freedom of speech on the internet while improving online "security".

EU countries have to start putting the regulation into their national laws starting next month, and it will be fully applicable a year later.

(with wires)

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