We should stop tech firms from screening extremist videos

Internet giants have a duty to help counter-terrorism efforts.

In response to the plethora of recent terrorist attacks, Europe has undertaken a step change in the way it tackles terrorism and its bedfellow, extremism. In one notable example, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, last week called for people who repeatedly view or stream extremist content to serve up to 15 years in jail. This sharpened focus on the need to combat radicalisation is welcome, but are we going about it in the right way?

The increasingly frequent attacks have certainly put pressure on governments to show that they are acting. Before 2015, the number of deadly attacks in Europe could be counted in single digits annually. Since then, upwards of 20 to 30 attacks resulting in fatalities have unfolded in succession each year, often just a few weeks apart. The UK is arguably the most targeted European country, home to roughly half of all reported terrorism-related events in 2016, whether successful or foiled, according to Europol. On countless occasions, following terrorist incidents, we hear that the individuals or group involved have travelled across European borders and have an extensive transnational terrorist network. Sometimes, we hear they have been radicalised through online content, as in the case of the London Bridge attackers.

As part of the UK response to this intensifying threat, the home secretary believes that prison sentences are necessary. On its own, however, this proposal would have significant financial implications without limiting the proliferation of radical content. According to the Focus Prisoner Education group, it costs £65,000 to imprison someone in the UK when all the costs are added up, and another £40,000 each year they are locked up. A 15-year sentence, as suggested by Rudd, would cost taxpayers more than £600,000 per inmate. And as we hear regularly, our prisons are brimful and can be a breeding ground for terror, which few would dispute.

In fact, jailing impressionable, but unconverted viewers of terrorist content could hasten their radicalisation by introducing them in a confined environment to more committed, and potentially persuasive, extremists. An independent review in 2015 under the then justice secretary, Michael Gove, highlighted such a risk. Complicating matters further, the taskforce created in April to address the challenge of radicalisation in prison must work within a system suffering budget cuts and understaffing.

This is not to say that this is an avenue we should abandon. Options must be assessed and the risk of incarceration may well deter some from seeking out terrorist content online. But the starting point should logically be to prevent access to such material in the first place. If tech companies and other platforms – or even the state – can detect who is viewing this content, then surely we should first and foremost focus on removing it. A second step would be to require Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, as well as smaller online platforms, to employ technology and human monitors in sufficient numbers to remove illegal content quickly.

The home secretary is right to call on these companies to live up to their moral obligations to ensure that their platforms and services are not misused to inspire violence or perpetrate harmful acts. Progress on this front has been far too slow and, in many cases, inconsistent and plainly ineffective. For example, a YouTube search undertaken by the non-profit Counter Extremism Project in late August delivered more than 70,000 results for the well-known Isis propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, including his most incendiary lectures urging Muslims to embrace violence. Yet the dual US-Yemeni citizen was killed more than six years ago.

Before jailing individuals, who can all too easily find and view terrorist content online at present, we should compel tech companies to implement strong, targeted and transparent policies for removing extremist and terrorist content so that people such as al-Awlaki cannot continue to stoke hatred and violence, even in death.

On 17 and 18 October, the Counter Extremism Project is hosting a two-day conference dedicated to terrorism prevention and reversing the spread of extremism. As a senior adviser to the non-partisan policy organisation, I look forward to exchanging views on what needs to be done better to address these global challenges and how the technology industry can help us more efficiently and robustly combat and pre-empt radicalisation and terrorist communications online.