Dozens of human rights groups and academics have signed on to an open letter (pdf) raising alarm about the European Union’s proposed Regulation on Preventing the Dissemination of Terrorist Content Online, warning that its call for Internet hosts to employ “proactive measures” to censor such content “will almost certainly lead platforms to adopt poorly understood tools” at the expense of democratic values across the globe.
One of those tools is the Hash Database developed by Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft, and Twitter. The 13 companies that use the database—which supposedly contains 80,000 images and videos—can automatically filter out material deemed “extreme” terrorist content. However, as the letter explains, “almost nothing is publicly known about the specific content that platforms block using the database, or about companies’ internal processes or error rates, and there is insufficient clarity around the participating companies’ definitions of ‘terrorist content.'”
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“Countering terrorist violence is a shared priority, and our point is not to question the good intentions of the database operators. But lawmakers and the public have no meaningful information about how well the database or any other existing filtering tool serves this goal, and at what cost to democratic values and individual human rights,” notes the letter, whose signatories include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Brennan Center for Justice, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the European Digital Rights (EDRi).
As an EDRi statement outlines, among the groups’ main concerns are the following:
- Lack of transparency of how the database works, and its effectiveness, proportionality, and appropriateness to achieve the goals the Terrorist Content Regulation aims to achieve;
- How filters are unable to understand the context and therefore they are error-prone; and
- Regardless of the possibility of filters to be accurate in the future, the pervasive online monitoring on disadvantaged and marginalized individuals.
Given the uncertainties over the effectiveness and societal costs of such tools, the letter charges that “requiring all platforms to use black-box tools like the database would be a gamble with European Internet users’ rights to privacy and data protection, freedom of expression and information, and non-discrimination and equality before the law.”
With those fundamental rights under threat, the groups are calling on members of the European Parliament “to reject proactive filtering obligations; provide sound, peer-reviewed research data supporting policy recommendations and legal mandates around counter-terrorism; and refrain from enacting laws that will drive Internet platforms to adopt untested and poorly understood technologies to restrict online expression.”
Read the full letter: