May demands two-hour rule to counter terrorism online

Theresa May will on Wednesday put pressure on internet companies to go “further and faster” in stopping the spread of terrorist material, proposing a new target for extremist content to be removed within two hours of it going online.

The UK prime minister wants the companies to comply voluntarily with the two-hour target but has not ruled out legislation that could impose fines on groups if they fail to act.

Mrs May, Emmanuel Macron of France and Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni will host a meeting at the UN on Wednesday that is intended to put technology groups in the spotlight over what Downing Street believes to be the industry’s sluggish response to the terrorist threat.

The event on the margins of the UN general assembly will involve Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter.

As well as pressure from politicians, the technology groups are expected to face calls for fresh action on the issue from advertising agencies, including WPP, which are pressing for the internet to be cleansed of extremist content.

Mrs May will welcome efforts by leading internet companies towards stopping the spread of terrorist material, but will claim that they can do much more.

“Industry needs to go further and faster in automating the detection and removal of terrorist content online, and developing technological solutions which prevent it being uploaded in the first place,” she will say.

A Downing Street official said: “These companies have some of the best brains in the world. They should really be focusing that on what matters, which is stopping the spread of terrorism and violence. We want them to break the echo chambers.”

Meanwhile, Mrs May will use her speech to the general assembly to signal that the UK is to intensify its efforts to tackle extremist ideology. Citing the terror attacks in Manchester and London this year, she will say: “Ultimately it is not just the terrorists themselves who we need to defeat. It is the extremist ideologies that fuels them . . . We must be far more robust in identifying these ideologies and defeating them, across all parts of our societies.”

Internet companies have already taken some steps to counter terrorist material posted online. For example, Twitter said it had suspended nearly 300,000 accounts linked to terrorism in the first half of 2017.

Google’s YouTube is increasing its use of technology to help automatically identify extremist videos.

Meanwhile, David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, warned that the internet offered an opportunity for a “whole new domain of warfare”.

When asked whether enough was being done to counter the threat of terrorism online, he told the BBC: “I don’t think we are [doing enough] and I think, frankly, if you asked those who run, own, the social media platforms and the internet service provider companies and so forth, that they would acknowledge that.”

However, Mr Petraeus, who commanded US troops in Afghanistan, acknowledged the challenge of not infringing the rights of individuals while still ensuring safety.

Discussing the recent UK terror attack in which a bomb partially exploded on a train at Parsons Green in west London, he said it appeared that instructions for creating this type of device were available on the internet.

“Now whether or not that’s how the individual got it is still to be determined but, at the very least, there is a lot of this out there and it doesn’t take a very exhaustive effort to find it,” said Mr Petraeus. “That has to be identified and taken down more assiduously.”

Police in Britain on Tuesday arrested a third man in connection with the Parsons Green attack.

The detention of a 25-year-old in Newport, south Wales, follows the arrest early on Saturday morning of an 18-year-old man at the Port of Dover and one just before midnight on Saturday of a 21-year-old man in Hounslow, west London.

Research published this week by the Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank, showed that jihadi internet content attracts more clicks in Britain than in any other country in Europe.

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