Europol Internet Referral Unit Criticized for Methods
October 3, 2016
In July of 2015 Europol launched their Internet Referral Unit (IRU), tasked with identifying extremist propaganda online and asking ISPs to take it down. Now that the group has been operating for a year, it is facing criticism about its methods, we learn from “Europol’s Online Censorship Unit is Haphazard and Unaccountable Says NGO” at ArsTechnica. The NGO referred to in the headline is the international digital rights organization AccessNow.
As of the IRU’s July birthday, the European Commission reports the IRU has examined about 8,000 posts over some 45 platforms and has made about 7,000 removal requests. As of May 2016, the group also has the power to hunt down terrorists; it has begun working with the UK National Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit to swiftly pursue those behind dangerous posts.
Not everyone is happy with IRU’s methods. Writer Jennifer Baker reports:
However AccessNow, a global digital rights organization, said Europe’s approach to dealing with online extremism is ‘haphazard, alarming, tone-deaf, and entirely counter-productive.
According to AccessNow, ‘the IRU is outside the rule of law on several grounds. First, illegal content is just that—illegal. If law enforcement encounters illegal activity, be it online or off, it is expected to proceed in dealing with that in a legal, rights-respecting manner.
Second, relegating dealing with this illegal content to a third private party, and leaving analysis and prosecution to their discretion, is both not just lazy—but extremely dangerous. Third, illegal content, if truly illegal, needs to be dealt with that way: with a court order and subsequent removal. The IRU’s blatant circumvention of the rule of law is in direct violation of international human rights standards.
For its part, Europol points to the IRU’s success at removing propaganda, including such worrisome content as bomb-making instructions and inflammatory speeches designed to spur specific acts of violence. Does this mean Europol believes the urgency of the situation calls for discarding the rule of law? Caution is warranted; we’ve been down this road before.