A Labour MP is pushing the UK government to introduce strict time limits for tech giants to take down illegal content as part of draft counter-terror legislation.
Taking a leaf out of Germany's playbook, Stephen Doughty, a member of the Home Affairs Committee, wants to enshrine in law how search engines and social media platforms should deal with illegal content.
In an amendment tabled to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill (PDF, NC1 on 6), Doughty proposes adding a clause that calls on search engines, video and image sharing platforms, and social media to remove or block illegal content within six hours of it being identified internally, or within 24 hours of the firm receiving an external complaint.
This is a shorter time frame than Germany's network enforcement act, NetzDG, which gives companies with more than 2 million users just 24 hours to remove or block criminal content, or seven days for more complex issues.
Doughty's amendment would also require tech firms to maintain effective procedures – both manual and automatic – to check whether material has been posted by or on behalf of a proscribed organisation, or to encourage support for such a group.
International lawmakers are known for their constant demands on tech giants when it comes to the removal of illegal terrorist content – but the firms have, somewhat predictably, spoken out against what they see as excess pressure.
At an event earlier this year, Karim Palant, UK public policy manager for Facebook, described the German model as "clumsy and ineffective", saying the "net effect" of threatening fines – with no equivalent pressure to protect legal speech – would be "huge erring on the side of caution".
The firms have, though, signed up to a set of voluntary rules set out in the European Union's Code of Conduct, which includes a pledge to review content within 24 hours. A January report said an average of 81 per cent were reviewed in that time.
'Three clicks and you're out'
The Counter-Terror Bill, which was introduced in June, aims to close gaps in existing legislation and make sure it works in a digital age.
However, some elements of the bill have come in for criticism from privacy advocates and experts on counter-terror laws – in particular a proposal that would make it an offence to stream terrorist material online three or more times. At the moment, offences relate to downloads, not streaming.
Independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Max Hill last week told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the law as drafted fails to offer sufficient clarity in a number of areas.
This included the period over which the three viewings have to take place and the circumstances in which people have not committed an offence. Corey Stoughton of Liberty told the committee that exemptions should include academics and journalists, as well as people who were viewing to gain a better understanding or did so "out of foolishness or poor judgement".
Hill said that "the mesh of the net the government is creating... is far too fine and will catch far too many people", noting that, as it stands, the offence might come with a long sentence as the draft bill also extends the maximum penalties to 15 years' imprisonment.
"It really begs the question as to whether there is a case in which somebody for – if I can put it this way – merely clicking online on three occasions, that might possibly require a sentence of that sort of length," Hill said.
Such issues were also raised during the bill committee's first hearing yesterday, when Gregor McGill, director of legal services to the Crown Prosecution Service, acknowledged that the timings could play a part in a successful prosecution.
"It is very difficult to say how a prosecutor would advise about a case in the abstract," he said. "What I could say is, three clicks over 25 years would be a harder case to prosecute than three clicks over a three or four-day period."
However, he added that he couldn't say it would be impossible to build a case on three clicks over 25 years – but that the question of whether there should be a limitation was a matter for Parliament.
In contrast, the Metropolitan Police's assistant commissioner for counter-terrorism, Neil Basu, said that he would "be nervous about absolute time limits" because some people may have been viewing content many years ago – but added that the police were "adept at looking at the full intelligence picture".
He emphasised his support for the proposal to make viewing – not just downloading material – an offence.
"That streaming is happening and it is happening en masse. At the moment, we are able to charge on one offence, because it was downloaded, but there might be a wealth of intelligence saying that a massive amount of streaming has been done. We then get a short-service sentence on the basis of one download, which does not say what the rounded threat of that individual is."
The next committee stage is due to take place tomorrow. ®