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World Leaders and Tech Titans Duke It Out Over Policing Extremist Content

September 20, 2017

In the blue corner, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron; in the red corner, Facebook and Google. At stake: the fate of policing terrorist propaganda on the Internet.

The Guardian reports that, at the United Nations general assembly today, British prime minister May, French president Macron, and Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni will outline their frustrations with Internet companies when it comes to removing extremist content from their sites. In a speech, May will echo sentiments that she’s aired before, and is expected to say:

“Terrorist groups are aware that links to their propaganda are being removed more quickly, and are placing a greater emphasis on disseminating content at speed in order to stay ahead. Industry needs to go further and faster in automating the detection and removal of terrorist content online, and developing technological solutions that prevent it being uploaded in the first place.”

The European leaders want tech firms to ensure that such content is removed from sites inside two hours, if it's not totally blocked from the get-go. But Reuters reports that Alphabet’s general counsel, Kent Walker, will respond to the world leaders on behalf of Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube to argue that the demands are unrealistic. He’s expected to say:

“We are making significant progress, but removing all of this content within a few hours—or indeed stopping it from appearing on the internet in the first place—poses an enormous technological and scientific challenge.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to finding and removing this content, but we’re getting much better. Of course finding problematic material in the first place often requires not just thousands of human hours but, more fundamentally, continuing advances in engineering and computer science research. The haystacks are unimaginably large and the needles are both very small and constantly changing.”

He’s right to argue that it’s a difficult challenge. But world powers are equally correct in saying that tech firms haven’t perhaps worked as hard as they might so far to stamp out the problem. Basically, it’s unclear what this confrontation will actually achieve.

What might be more useful is world leaders being realistic, Internet firms pushing hard to change things, and everyone working together to solve the problem—rather than fighting about it.

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