Aaron Gallagher 11th April 2019
Leaving the European Union could limit freedom of expression online and increase the risk of terrorism in the UK, MEPs have warned.
A European Parliament committee is working on a proposal to tackle the terrorist content online and, despite British MEPs making up the entire committee, it looks as though we might not benefit from the legislation when we leave the EU.
The Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (Libe) committee is chaired by British MEP Claude Moraes with five other Brits, Raymond Finch (no party), Julie Ward (Labour), Daniel Dalton (Conservative), Martina Anderson (Sinn Féin) and Gerard Batten (Ukip) as members. These MEPs will be replaced when Britain leaves the EU, and the UK is not obliged to follow the new rules when we leave.
The committee’s proposal seeks to clarify the legal responsibilities of businesses that provide online services and hosting for websites and email servers. The committee has been working to ensure that such businesses have to take effective and reasonable steps to report and remove terrorist content.
British human rights and freedom of expression organisation Article 19 rebutted the initial proposal, over concerns that automated bots would not be good enough at checking whether material was or wasn’t terror-related.
The organisation said some harmful terror-related content may slip through while non-harmful and non-terror related content could be caught and reported, creating a system that is inefficient, ineffective and could create censorship.
After the organisation made this point, the committee amended the report to add that only judicial authorities, like police “which have sufficient expertise to issue a valid removal order, should be empowered to take such decisions”.
Another issue is that, currently, member states of the EU aren’t able to hold to service providers liable for dangerous content if the service provider removes it as soon as it can.
Article 19 opposes allowing service providers to have power over deciding what qualifies as terrorist content.
It says the term is “ill-defined” and risks the removal of content created or shared by journalists, human rights campaigners and civil society organisations, based solely on their “perceived political affiliation, activism, religious practice or national origin”.
But it’s also important to ensure that legislation respects freedom of expression and that the threat of terrorism does not lead to an abuse of power
The committee has stripped service providers of their power to take down terrorist content and obliged providers to consult judicial authorities in order to validate the removal request.
The committee has also redefined “terrorist content” to mean “information which is used to incite and glorify the commission of terrorist offences”. The new definition also covers material that encourages terrorism or provides instructions on how to commit acts of terrorism and how to join terrorist groups.
This ensures that educational, research and journalistic material is excluded from that definition and protected.
Previously, service providers were required to take down offending material within one hour. This rule has since been quashed, with the committee opting for “without undue delay” as a deadline. This permits providers to address removal orders in a balanced and appropriate manner rather than racing against the clock.
Committee member Julie Ward says: “The issue is important because security works better when countries co-operate closely; a cross-border issue. But it’s also important to ensure that legislation respects freedom of expression and that the threat of terrorism does not lead to an abuse of power.”
After the hard work of British MEPs to ensure that this legislation effectively combats terrorist activity online, while maintaining freedom of expression, there is no guarantee that the UK will adopt the same rules post-Brexit. While it seems unlikely we would adopt no policy at all, this could result in service providers being responsible for monitoring their own systems — a method that puts civil liberties at risk.
Also part of our MEPs investigation:
Aaron Gallagher 11th April 2019