Users to ‘flag’ terrorist web pages under EU proposal

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Users to ‘flag’ terrorist web pages under EU proposal

An exercise in crowdsourcing counterterrorism.

Internet users may soon be asked to ‘flag’ for police review any web content they believe might incite terrorism, under new counterterrorism proposals put forward in Europe.

The ‘flagging’ mechanism is one of a number of initiatives proposed by a group of European Government officials participating in the ‘Clean IT Project’.

The ‘Clean IT Project’, funded by the European Commission’s ‘Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme’, aims to bring together European Governments and the internet industry to find mutually-agreeable solutions to curb the use of the internet to incite or conduct terrorism.

Partners in the project include Europol, the UK’s Home Office, Germany’s Ministry of the Interior (BMI), Spain’s National Centre of Antiterrorist Coordination (CNCA), The Netherlands’ National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism and Security (NCTV) and Belgium’s CUTA (Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment).

Representatives from these agenices and other unnamed participants met in Amsterdam in late October to draw up a plan as to how the public and private sector might collaborate to combat terrorism online, without having to resort to introducing uniform legislation across multiple jurisdictions.

The working group has now published a draft manifesto of initiatives to put forward to private sector stakeholders for comment.

The general thrust of the document is that citizens (users), ISPs, web hosts, search engines and other private sector organisations should more actively participate in the law enforcement process.

Service providers "could offer users easy to use flagging systems,” the draft plan proposed.

“Law Enforcement Agencies of all countries should actively flag and encourage the use of flagging among end users as much as possible as a way of notification to the ISP that they are hosting content which might be illegal or unwanted.”

This could be combined with a ‘notice and take down’ system under which law enforcement agencies would assess flagged web pages and forward take down notices to ISPs if the content is believed to contravene national laws.

But that system would also have to recognise that private sector organisations are primarily concerned with profit rather than crimefighting, so the process would need to be as "clear and fast" as practicably possible, the plan noted.

The law enforcement agency would need to provide ISPs or web host with a single point of regular contact on counterterrorism matters. For any take down notice, the law enforcement authority would be required to provide the ISP sufficient information about what laws are suspected to have been contravened, and also report back to service providers to provide feedback on how their efforts aided any investigation or prosecution.

The document did not provide any detail about how flagging would be achieved at a technical level. Flagging functions are already available for some online content services such as YouTube, but not as an in-browser function for marking general web pages or informing law enforcement of suspect activities.

The 'flagging' idea has some high profile supporters across the Atlantic. In late November, US Senator Joe Lieberman wrote to Google chief executive Larry Page [pdf] asking that the company build a terrorism-flagging capability into its ‘Blogger’ service. While noting that Google did provide such a function for terrorism-related content posted to YouTube, Lieberman chastised the company for not building a flagging function across all of its services.

“The private sector plays an important role in protecting our homeland from the preeminent threat of violent Islamist extremism, and Google’s inconsistent standards are adversely affecting our ability to counter violent Islamist extremism online," Lieberman wrote.

The Australian Government, meanwhile, has signalled its own concerns about the links between terrorism in the internet. In Late December the Attorney General's Department released a tender seeking research into the “relationship between violent extremism and the internet, including the role of new media.”


Whilst the Clean IT Project is pitched as a public-private partnership, the project’s November update [pdf] noted that private sector organisations will get their say after the second draft of the document.

The project's web site does not list any private sector organisations that have agreed to participate in the program. The Internet Society of Belgium has voluntarily announced its involvement in discussions.

Further workshops are planned for Madrid in January and Brussels in March.

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