How Silicon Valley Is Stepping Up in the Online Terror Takedown

Opinion: The largest internet companies are the gatekeepers to the digital world

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In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Va., white-supremacist rally, hatred and violence spilled from the streets into the online world. Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer shamelessly trolled victim Heather Heyer after her death, in turn provoking the digital powers that be. Google, Facebook, Twitter, DreamHost, GoDaddy and more blocked the site, banishing it to the depths of the dark web.

Newly surfaced, The Daily Stormer now clings to Icelandic “free speech” web host OrangeWebsite as it bounces between international domains and social networks.

Meanwhile the titans of tech are working together to quash the many forms of digital terror. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft are building a growing army of community moderators and artificial intelligence tools to expose and eradicate dangerous online materials.

As extremist propaganda meets livestreamed violence and aggressive terrorist recruitment campaigns, global lawmakers and intergovernmental organizations are turning up the heat. They want iron-clad content moderation and real-time responses, and they’re threatening sanctions and legal action. Across the globe, all eyes are on Silicon Valley as it steps up in the new war on terror.

From hatred to terror

Last June, the tech world was united in a pledge to clean-up the internet. Signatories of the European Union code of conduct, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft vowed to remove illegal hate speech published on their properties in under 24 hours. But as hatred proliferates, new formats like livestreaming video create fresh channels for violence—we’ve seen murder, gang rape, revenge porn and suicide.

Facebook has some 7,500 moderators on top of community flagging tools and AI technologies such as automated text, image and audio recognition tools. This form of intelligence, known as “computer vision,” processes more images than human eyeballs, removing offensive posts and renegading violent material to a growing repository of horror. In collaboration with Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, all terrorist imagery and recruitment materials are collected in the shared industry hashes database.

One year down the line, Facebook was cheered for achieving compliance, but a despondent EU Justice Commission warned that Twitter and YouTube are failing. The body seeks legislative action to enforce faster changes, greater transparency and regulation for all online platforms. Engadget’s Jon Fingas explained that while the code of conduct demands that parties take action, new measures “would dictate how.”

Regulating censorship

The EU evaluation of Facebook’s advances against online hate shows that, contrary to the claims of OrangeWebsite, a safe environment free from harassment relies on community controls and moderation. A breakdown of the logic behind these safety checks reveals a labyrinth of conflicting rules and seemingly bizarre decisioning.

As reported by The Guardian, Facebook’s “internal training bible” categorizes offensive content with complex abuse standards.

In a post, the text, “Someone shoot Trump,” would be removed, as the president is a “public figure” (with more than 100,000 followers), but the threat, “I hope someone kills you,” directed to an individual that is not defined as “protected,” would bypass these checks.

he inconsistencies multiply when you expand this to photos and videos, and fully autonomous AI decisioning could wreak havoc here. (Remember, Twitter taught Microsoft chat bot Tay to be racist in just 12 hours.)

This means the process of classifying and removing hate and terror is not yet ready for strict regulations and censorship laws. Facebook users generate 1.3 million posts per minute, and there are 2.4 million Google searches traversing trillions of web pages every minute. This sheer mass of content can’t be trusted to man nor machine.

Playing it safe won’t work, either: If tech firms err on the side of caution and suppress any questionable content, not only are they gagging free speech, but they could also put lives at risk.

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