Tech giants’ new anti-terror group

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Tech giants Facebook and Microsoft have launched an independent organisation to combat online radicalisation and violent terrorist content and “thwart increasingly sophisticated attempts” to abuse digital platforms.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) was originally founded by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube in 2017 to help the tech companies share information and coordinate efforts to stamp out terrorist content from their platforms.

In light of the Christchurch terrorist attack earlier this year, part of which was live-streamed on Facebook, and a series of international efforts to crackdown on social media companies hosting that sort of content, the GIFCT has now become an independent organisation with its own executive director and dedicated tech, counter-terrorism and operations teams.

The group will also broaden its remit to work with civil society and governments on the current issues and legislative, and to sponsor research from academics.

“Evolving and institutionalising GIFCT’s structure from a consortium of member companies will build on our early achievements and deepen industry collaboration with experts, partners and government stakeholders – all in an effort to thwart increasingly sophisticated efforts by terrorists and violent extremists to abuse digital platforms,” Facebook said in a statement.

The organisation has a new mission statement – “prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms – and four foundational goals:

  • empower a range of tech companies to collaborate to prevent the abuse of their platforms
  • enable multi-stakeholder engagement
  • promote civil dialogue online
  • advance the broader understanding of terrorist operations and their evolution

The group’s participating members have also expanded to include Amazon, LinkedIn and WhatsApp.

The new independent GIFCT will be funded by these tech companies, with an executive director to be recruited to lead and coordinate its operations, centred on core management, program implementation and fundraising.

It will also have an independent advisory committee chaired by a non-governmental representative and including members from civil society, government and inter-governmental entities. Members of this committee will be from governments including the US, UK, France and New Zealand, but apparently not Australia.

The revamped GIFCT will have three key pillars of work: to prevent the spread of terrorist and extreme content on digital platforms, to develop the tools and capacity for these platforms to cooperate and to empower researchers to study terrorism and counterterrorism.

It will also establish a number of working groups to focus on various key themes, such as positive interventions with respect to radicalisation, algorithmic outcomes and improving the multistakeholder protocol.

The announcement was made on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where representatives from the tech firms met with government leaders, including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“The new standalone Global Internet Forum to counter terrorism will have a dedicated structure and staff to more capably carry out the business of disrupting terrorist and violent extremist use of member platforms and to engage with smaller platforms to assist them to do the same,” Ms Ardern said.

At the UN, the new crisis response protocol was unveiled, which will be used by governments and tech companies following a terrorist attack to better coordinate and manage the online impacts of the event.

Following the New Zealand terrorist attack in March, governments and tech companies from around the world came together to launch the Christchurch Call to Action, a set of voluntary commitments to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online.

In the six months since, the tech companies said they’ve made a lot of progress, including the recently released protocol, a cross-platform countering violent extremism toolkit, the release of algorithms for hashing technology used to identify extremist content and the publishing of a transparency report.

The Australian government has made a number of efforts to crackdown on tech companies hosting this “abhorrent” content, and has at times taken the fight directly to the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also taken this fight to the world stage at meetings such as the G20.

Just a month after the Christchurch attack, the Coalition passed legislation introducing new fines and potential jail sentences for the executives of tech companies that fail to take down “abhorrent violent material” quickly enough, but these rules have been criticised for being impractical and unrealistic.

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