Shortly after European officials warned that U.S. technology companies need to do better at curbing online hate speech, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube have announced they'll start sharing data to reduce the spread of "terrorist content" online.
In a joint statement yesterday, the companies said they will create a shared industry database of unique digital "fingerprints" identifying violent terrorist images and recruitment materials they have removed from their services. The shared data, called "hashes," is aimed at improving the efficiency at which tech firms control the spread of such content.
The announcement followed reports by The Financial Times and Reuters that a European Union (EU) study found that the firms were not living up to the voluntary compliance standards on online hate speech they agreed to earlier this year. If compliance didn't improve, the EU could consider imposing stricter non-voluntary regulations on those companies, one official warned.
Focus on 'Most Extreme, Egregious' Content
In addition to sharing hashes of "the most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos we have removed from our services," Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube aim to involve other companies in the effort in the future, according to the statement.
The companies also noted that each one will determine individually which image and video hashes to share based on their own policies for determining what constitutes terrorist content. It will then be up to the other companies receiving the shared information to decide whether to remove that content from their own sites.
"No personally identifiable information will be shared, and matching content will not be automatically removed," the companies said. "Each company will continue to apply its own policies and definitions of terrorist content when deciding whether to remove content when a match to a shared hash is found. And each company will continue to apply its practice of transparency and review for any government requests, as well as retain its own appeal process for removal decisions and grievances."
EU To Discuss Study Findings
In May, the European Commission, the EU's executive body, announced that it had drafted a set of voluntary commitments on hate speech in cooperation with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube. Under those commitments, the four companies agreed to review most removal notifications for hate speech in less than 24 hours.
A recent EU study, however, found that only 40 percent of notifications were handled in less than one day, although the compliance rate exceeded 80 percent after 48 hours. Compliance also varied widely across different countries in Europe, with just 4 percent of racist comments online removed in Italy compared to more than half in Germany and France. EU officials plan to discuss the study's findings Thursday.
Between mid-2015 and this past August, Twitter said it had suspended 360,000 accounts for violating its policies on promotion of terrorism. In August, the company noted that its response times had also improved significantly. At that time, Twitter said that it was suspending 80 percent more accounts on a daily basis than it had in the previous year, with suspensions spiking after terrorist attacks.
According to Microsoft, terrorist content is described as "material posted by or in support of organizations included on the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List that depicts graphic violence, encourages violent action, endorses a terrorist organization or its acts, or encourages people to join such groups."