Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft are teaming up against “online terrorist content“

Facebook is at the center of the fake news crisis.
Facebook is at the center of the fake news crisis.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Four of the world’s biggest disseminators of online content—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft—said today that they are ready to do more self-policing to keep terrorist propaganda from spreading on the internet.

The companies say they will create a shared database to track “violent terrorist imagery” and “terrorist recruitment videos or images,” helping each other more efficiently review content that might violate their specific policies. They will do this by logging hashes, digital identifiers that are unique to each piece of content. Once a hash is added to the database, each company will make its own decision about whether to remove that particular piece of content.

“There is no place for content that promotes terrorism on our hosted consumer services,” the four companies said in a joint press release.

Conversations around what role tech companies should play in policing the content on their platforms have grown more urgent ever since Donald Trump won the US presidential election on Nov. 8. Much of the discussion has focused on the fake and often hate-fueled news that spread on Facebook and elsewhere during the campaign, as well as the “filter bubbles” of information created by social media and an increasingly fragmented media.

The collaboration announced today is limited to online terrorist content. It does not represent “a new normal” for other content questions, one of the companies involved said, adding that the spread of terrorism online “is a pressing problem that requires special attention from technology companies.” Creating a database has been under discussion for some time, the company said, declining to be more specific.

Facebook will maintain the database, and only those working on the project will be able to contribute to and access it, with the potential for other companies to join in the future. Another participant said the database will not accept hashes flagged by governments and law enforcement, and that governments would need to submit formal requests for information maintained in it as they would for any other content inquiries.

Twitter said in a statement that it has suspended more than 360,000 accounts since mid-2015 for violating its policy on “violent threats and the promotion of terrorism.” Microsoft in May banned terrorist content from its consumer services and said it was looking into ways of alerting users to “information that may cause them significant harm, including terrorist content” that was surfaced by its Bing search engine.

All four companies emphasized in the press release that they remain committed to protecting users’ privacy and freedom of expression.