Europe Calls for More Action to Fight Illegal Content Online

Andrus Ansip
Emmanuel Dunard/AFP/Getty Images

Guidelines issued by the European Commission say platforms need to “redouble their efforts” to take illegal content, from pirated films to hate speech, off the web more quickly and efficiently.

The European Commission on Thursday issued new guidelines for online platforms to better detect and remove illegal content from the web. The recommendations, which are not legally binding, are aimed at making it easier and quicker for companies to block or delete unlawful content, ranging from terrorist content and child sex abuse material to hate speech and copyright infringement in the form of pirated films, music and television shows.

The Commission said progress has been made in some areas — internet companies now remove on average 70 percent of illegal hate speech flagged on their platforms, in more than 80 percent of cases within 24 hours — but more needs to be done.

“The spread of illegal content online undermines the trust of citizens in the Internet and poses security threats,” the Commission said in a statement. “Platforms need to redouble their efforts to take illegal content off the web more quickly and efficiently.”

To that end, the Commission laid out five action points for industry and European legislators to create both voluntary and binding mechanisms to fight illegal online content.

They include:

– The establishing of easy and transparent rules for flagging illegal content, while allowing content providers the ability to contest decisions to avoid the removal of flagged content that is not illegal.

– The development of more efficient tools and proactive technologies to detect and remove illegal content. For terrorist and child sexual content in particular, the Commission said, it should be possible to automatically detect and remove material “which does not need contextualization to be deemed illegal.”

– The implementation of stronger safeguards to protect fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and data protection laws. The Commission called on platforms to use human oversight and verification to make sure automatic algorithms are not deleting legal material or hindering freedom of speech.

– Larger platforms should share detection technology and best practices with smaller companies. The Commission called for voluntary cooperation between the dominant online platforms and smaller companies across Europe to make sure platforms with more limited resources and expertise will be able to detect and delate illegal content effectively.

– Closer cooperation with authorities. If there is evidence of a serious criminal offense, or that illegal content could pose a threat to the life or safety of European citizens, companies should promptly inform law enforcement authorities. The Commission recommends that European Union member states adopt laws requiring platforms to contact police or relevant authorities if appropriate.

For all its recommendations, the Commission said companies should “follow the principle of proportionality” when removing illegal content, taking a stricter approach to the more serious issue of terrorist or child sex abuse content, than to lesser copyright infringement. "Proportionality" has become a buzzword in this context after legislation in Germany, meant to combat online hate, was criticized as clamping down of freedom of speech.

The Commission has suggested a combination of new legislation and voluntary action by online platforms as the best way to combat illegal online content. In the coming weeks, it will launch a public consultation on the issue.

"Online platforms are becoming people's main gateway to information, so they have a responsibility to provide a secure environment for their users," said Andrus Ansip, European Commission vp and Digital Single Market vp. "What is illegal offline is also illegal online. While several platforms have been removing more illegal content than ever before — showing that self-regulation can work — we still need to react faster against terrorist propaganda and other illegal content which is a serious threat to our citizens' security, safety and fundamental rights."

To monitor the effects of Thursday's recommendation, European Union member states will be required to submit information on online terrorist content to the Commission within three months and on other illegal content within six months.

The Commission plans to monitor the issue and decide if further steps, including new legislation, is required.