Why we need more transparency to combat terrorist and violent extremist content online

By Jeremy West

Senior Policy Analyst, OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation

Last month the 29-year old responsible for live streaming his massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was sentenced to life in prison. Although he will probably be forgotten, images of the attack live on, not only in the memories of survivors but in the video recording that frustrated online companies’ efforts to control and remove it as it spread across the Internet.

Government leaders and major online service providers responded in solidarity with New Zealand by pledging to enhance efforts to combat terrorist and violent extremist content – or “TVEC” – online. Under the pledge, known as the Christchurch Call, governments committed to work with online platforms to accelerate the development of technical solutions to prevent the upload and dissemination of TVEC, and to develop best practices on combatting such content while respecting human rights and freedoms.

Sixteen months after the Christchurch Call, a report recently published by the OECD sheds new light on the issue. The analysis provides an objective snapshot of how the world’s leading online content-sharing services address TVEC – and whether their efforts are transparent and accountable – marking an important step towards an effective cross-industry response to a pernicious problem.

Although the majority of services covered in our report ban content that could, to varying degrees, be considered TVEC, only five (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Autommatic) issue transparency reports with specific information on TVEC. Correspondingly, only those five define terrorism, violent extremism and related concepts in detail. Even among just those five, the definitions used vary substantially, and other services in the top 50 define TVEC with differing degrees of specificity.

Co-operation among different stakeholders will ultimately be key to countering the spread of TVEC.

Greater precision around those definitions would improve understanding of the kind of content that the services act on and whom their efforts affect. In addition, if more companies issued TVEC transparency reports, and the reports covered a more consistent set of metrics, they would enable clearer and more accurate insights into the overall, cross-platform impact of efforts to counter TVEC, including on freedom of speech and other fundamental rights. More, and more consistent, TVEC transparency reporting would also enable better policy solutions.

See the full report for more insights and content, including an annex with detailed information on each service’s TVEC practices. A second report is underway to study changes since the data gathering for the first report. This work is providing a new baseline for discussions on combatting TVEC. It is also informing an OECD-led, consensus-driven effort by countries, companies, civil society and academia to develop a common framework and set of metrics for voluntary transparency reporting on TVEC. Co-operation among different stakeholders will ultimately be key to countering the spread of TVEC – and it is essential that they have all the information they need to develop effective solutions.

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