Study warns of human rights risks from censoring online terror content

Global Network Initiative said that internet companies should not be required to monitor third-party terror content

Internet companies should not be required to monitor third-party terrorist content that they host or transmit, nor should they face direct or indirect liability from governments for such content, according to a new study.

The Global Network Initiative, a group that represents academics, investors, civil society organizations and companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, published its study Tuesday. It's the offshoot of a policy discussion it started in July 2015, exploring key issues such as the human rights implications of government efforts to restrict online content with the aim of protecting public safety.

Liability on internet companies acting as intermediaries, hosting and transmitting third-party content and the requirement that they monitor for terror content may lead them to overdo removal of controversial content, according to the report. Legal demands to restrict content should whenever possible be directed at the creators of content rather than the intermediaries, it added.

Internet intermediaries have come under close scrutiny for extremist content on their sites, which are believed to be used by terror groups both for propaganda and to recruit followers.

A number of companies have said that they are acting to weed out such content from their sites. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter agreed with the European Union in May to remove from their websites illegal hate speech, visible in Europe, that could incite hatred or acts of terror.

But in August, the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons in the U.K. described as alarming that social networking companies have very small teams to monitor billions of accounts for extremist content. Some companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are also facing lawsuits from families of victims who claim that these companies provide tools for terrorists.

The GNI is, however, wary that in pushing forward in their fight against terrorism, governments across the world could encroach on fundamental rights, including rights of expression and privacy, and also force internet intermediaries to compromise their principles and business strategies.

Governments should not pressure companies to modify their terms of service, according to the report. “Companies develop TOS in order to deliver user experiences that are appropriate for the nature or type of service, and the user community of the service,” it said.

When governments ask companies to remove content under their TOS, governments should “guard against the risks that such referrals may set precedents for extra-judicial government censorship,” without providing access to remedy, accountability, or transparency for users and the public.

“If governments make such referrals, they should be transparent about, and accountable for, such referrals,” according to the report. Unless prevented from doing so by law, companies should also be transparent with their users when asked by governments to remove or restrict content, it added.

The GNI's proposals are at this point only recommendations. The group plans to use them in engagements on public policy, including its role as part of the advisory board of a UN project on private sector and civil society involvement in countering the use of the internet and communications technologies by terror groups.

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