Internet companies should remove terrorist content within one hour after receiving an order from the authorities, to combat radicalisation and contribute to public security.

With 308 votes in favour to 204 against and 70 abstentions, Parliament backed on Wednesday a proposal to tackle the misuse of internet hosting services for terrorist purposes. Companies that systematically and persistently fail to abide by the law may be sanctioned with up to 4% of their global turnover.

The newly elected European Parliament will be in charge of negotiating with the Council of Ministers on the final form of the text.

No obligation to monitor or filter all content

Once an internet company hosting content uploaded by users (like Facebook or YouTube) that offers their services in the EU has received a removal order from the competent national authority, they will have one hour to remove it or disable access to it in all EU member states. However, they will not be generally obliged to monitor the information they transmit or store, nor have to actively seek facts indicating illegal activity.

To help smaller platforms, MEPs decided that, when a company has never received a removal order before, the competent authority should contact it, to provide information on procedures and deadlines, at least 12 hours before issuing the first order to remove content that they are hosting.

If a company has been subject to a substantial number of removal orders, the authorities may request that it implements additional specific measures (e.g. regularly reporting to the authorities, or increasing human resources). MEPs in the Civil Liberties Committee agreed not to impose an obligation to monitor uploaded content nor the use of automated tools.

What is terrorist content?

The legislation targets any material -text, images, sound recordings or videos- that “incites or solicits the commission or contribution to the commission of terrorist offences, provides instructions for the commission of such offences or solicits the participation in activities of a terrorist group”, as well as content providing guidance on how to make and use explosives, firearms and other weapons for terrorist purposes.

Content disseminated for educational, journalistic or research purposes should be protected, according to MEPs. They also make clear that the expression of polemic or controversial views on sensitive political questions should not be considered terrorist content.

“There is clearly a problem with terrorist material circulating unchecked on the internet for too long. This propaganda can be linked to actual terrorist incidents and national authorities must be able to act decisively. Any new legislation must be practical and proportionate if we are to safeguard free speech. Without a fair process, there is a risk that too much content would be removed, as businesses would understandably take a ‘safety first’ approach to defend themselves. It also absolutely cannot lead to a general monitoring of content by the back door,” said Daniel Dalton (ECR, UK), EP rapporteur for the proposal.

EPP: A good step forward but more must be done

The Regulation approved by the European Parliament on tackling terrorist content from online platforms is a good step forward according to the EPP Group. However, it could have been much stronger and effective if the Left Groups hadn’t blocked important measures which would have made it much more difficult for terrorists to spread their message using online platforms. Such measures include a cross-border cooperation system, a necessity for the hosting service providers to cooperate with competent authorities sending referrals, as well as the compulsory pro-active measures taken by online platforms to detect and remove such content by themselves.

“When it comes to online terrorist content, time is of the essence. This is why we insisted that all competent authorities should be able to send removal orders to all online platforms. Disabling access to terrorist content in only one Member State is not good enough. Such dangerous content should be removed within the hour in all Member States,” said Rachida Dati MEP, EPP Group Spokeswoman on the legislation.

“Besides removal orders, we insisted that the competent authorities should also be able to make companies aware that they have terrorist content on the platform that they host, which should be assessed as a matter of priority. The EPP Group also pushed forward the idea that hosting service providers should be obliged to take proactive measures against terrorist content. “A terrorist video or message can spread online in the form of hundreds of thousands of copies within seconds. All hosting service providers exposed to terrorist content should themselves be actively involved in detecting and deleting terrorist content published on their platforms. Everyone should be responsible in the fight against terrorism”, Dati said, whilst expressing discontent with the fact that the Left Groups decided not to support such important measures.

ECR: Attempts to water down anti-terror report defeated

ECR MEP Daniel Dalton has seen off attempts to water down his report tackling online terrorist content. According to ECR’s MEP today, some MEPs sought to replace a requirement for platforms to remove terrorist-related posts within an hour with a weaker demand to simply delete them “as soon as possible.”

However, Parliament rejected amendments submitted by Green and Socialist MEPs and approved Dalton’s report, which could now complete the legislative process by the end of the year.

“The one hour deadline is a key part of this important legislation and I am delighted it received Parliament’s support. There is clearly a problem with terrorist material circulating unchecked on the internet for too long. Law enforcement authorities have made clear to me that terrorist content disseminates most rapidly in the first hour and that the one hour principle is vital,” said Dalton.

“This propaganda can be linked to actual terrorist incidents and national authorities must be able to act decisively. The online posts linked to the recent terrorist outrage in Christchurch were another reminder of how important it is that we act. Today’s approval means trilogue negotiations between the Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission can begin after May’s elections and the legislation take effect as soon as possible,” he added.