As global terrorist networks increasingly turn to social media to recruit new members around the world, the French government has called for better monitoring and increased collaboration with Internet companies, including in the US, to stop the spread of extremism online.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve traveled to Silicon Valley Friday to meet with representatives from Tech companies Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft to lay the foundations for potential future collaboration in fighting what he has called "easy-access terrorism."
The Silicon Valley visit comes on the heels of the White House's three-day Countering Violent Extremism summit held in Washington DC and attended by representatives from around the world.
The summit was organized in the wake of several high-profile terror attacks, including the January Paris attacks that left 17 dead. The role of the private sector and tech community in global counterterrorism efforts was one of several topics discussed at the conference.
On the last day of the summit Thursday, Cazeneuve detailed France's three top primary priorities to curtail terrorist recruitment in a speech to attendees. These included setting up a pan-European Passenger Name Record (PNR) travel data sharing scheme; improving monitoring of foreign fighters; and "better coordination in the fight against propaganda and internet-based terrorist recruitment."
The Internet: a primary target
Since the Paris attacks, the interior minister has repeatedly claimed that, "90 percent of those who commit terrorist acts are recruited via the internet," — a figure echoed in a report by conservative Paris-based watchdog the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Abuse Linked to Islam. The report has been challenged by terror experts in France, who have questioned whether it sufficiently represents the various contexts of radicalization.
Days after the Paris shootings, the French government announced sweeping new anti-terrorism measures, including a measure allowing authorities to automatically censor sites that glorify terrorism without first needing the court's permission. Digital rights defenders have condemned the measures, claiming they would severely limit civil liberties.
Later on January 28, the French government continued its anti-terror campaign with the unveiling of its web-based initiative aimed at combatting online recruitment tactics employed by the Islamic State and other extremist networks. The government website features a video debunking common "myths" peddled by militant recruiters, and offers advice and a "toolkit" for families and acquaintances of individuals susceptible to "violent radicalization."
While the French government currently relies on a comprehensive Internet-monitoring system, dubbed "Pharos," which allows users to flag inappropriate online content, Cazeneuve now hopes to persuade Silicon Valley's largest social and online platforms to self-police problematic content through a process of "private self-regulation." This system could speed-up the removal of extremist propaganda, which is usually subject to review in the courts before it is expunged from the Internet.
Specifically, the French government is seeking to streamline the removal of online content hosted by sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which have become the favored propaganda platforms for a variety of extremist groups and individuals.
But the laws surrounding hosted content on Facebook and Twitter are far from clear-cut. The sites are not responsible for hosted content, except if it is specifically determined to be illegal. Sites that edit content, on the other hand, are responsible for everything that is published online. These legal distinctions have led French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin to call for the creation of a hybrid status for Internet companies that would straddle the line between host and editor.
Still, critics contend that online monitoring alone may not be enough to stifle terrorist recruitment. French magistrate Marc Trévidic, who has presided over a number of terror-related cases, recently told a counterterrorism parliamentary commission that radicalization can occur in a myriad of settings including, "jail, the Internet, meeting places, [and] places of worship."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
Image via State Chancellery/Flickr