French internet cops have demanded that the Internet Archive remove more than 550 instances of "terrorist propaganda" from its site.
There's only one problem: the illegal and offensive content they have identified includes live recordings of the Grateful Dead, archives of TV news shows and pages from Project Gutenberg – which archives plain text versions of books as horrifying as The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland.
The organization is not amused. "It would be bad enough if the mistaken URLs in these examples were for a set of relatively obscure items on our site," it said in a blog post, "but the French IRU's lists include some of the most visited pages on archive.org and materials that obviously have high scholarly and research value."
It then provides some of the links that it points out it would be obliged to remove within one hour if new legislation passing through the European Parliament is approved. It is painfully obvious that the requests are overly broad and misguided.
"The European Parliament is set to vote on legislation that would require websites that host user-generated content to take down material reported as terrorist content within one hour," the Internet Archive notes. "We have some examples of current notices sent to the Internet Archive that we think illustrate very well why this requirement would be harmful to the free sharing of information and freedom of speech that the European Union pledges to safeguard."
The requests were sent by the French national Internet Referral Unit through an email address associated with Europol’s EU Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) – something that led the Archive to initially believe they came from Europol. Europol has since clarified that it was not involved in the assessment.
Too much leeway
The demand is a very clear example of the risks associated with giving law enforcement too much power to pressure internet content providers to take down content before evaluating it.
It also highlights a common criticism of opponents of the new legislation: that the end result will be the removal of huge amounts of legitimate content and a heavy burden on internet companies. Instead of removing needles in haystacks, the authorities will simply remove the haystacks.
There is another chilling component too, highlighted by the Internet Archive: a separate takedown notice sent by the French L'Office Central de Lutte contre la Criminalité liée aux Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication (OCLCTIC).
In this case, it demanded that the organization take down a video that discussed whether the Islamic holy text, the Quran, included "provocation of acts of terrorism or apology for such acts".
The idea that any mention of terrorism, without any consideration of context, is akin to terrorism is a truly disturbing development that can only serve to reinforce people's personal prejudice. The fact that the request made it through the French government's processes and resulted in a takedown demand is exactly the sort of thing that opponents of the legislation feared would happen.
There are many notable opponents to the proposed legislation as currently drafted, including three "special rapporteurs" from the United Nations who sent a letter in December calling it a "very serious and disappointing regulatory development."
Article 13 + idiocy
The EU has faced fierce criticism in the past year over its "Article 13" provisions that would make internet platforms legally liable for the content on their services and require them to remove infringing content.
The proposal "on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online" was first published [PDF] by the EU in September 2018 and is an attempt to expand efforts to rein in the worst aspects of the internet.
While the Article 13 wording was subject to extensive debate and changes (which still did not satisfy many but was substantially improved), the fear with the new terrorist content bill is that it will be harder to argue against its imposition given the nature of the content itself.
The ridiculous demands placed on the Internet Archive should prove to EU lawmakers that, if anything, tighter controls need to be placed on who is able to make such takedown requests and the processes that need to be followed before such a request is issued. ®