The Malta Independent 17 August 2019, Saturday

Ensuring a safe online environment

Francis Zammit Dimech Sunday, 21 April 2019, 09:44 Last update: about 5 months ago

A topic of great concern for many people is that of security.  Everyone wants to feel safe and at ease, especially when it comes to the internet and social media, something we make use of for communication and to share our thoughts and experiences.

The tragic events that unfolded in Christ Church, New Zealand, where a devastating terrorist attack saw 43 fatalities, is a vile example of why we need to do everything we can to boost social media security. What distinguishes this attack from previous ones, is the strong element of social media present today. 

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The gunman live-streamed the whole ordeal on Facebook and copies of the stream have been shown on other social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter.

The video has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The big companies struggled to stop videos of the attack spreading on their platforms, as users uploaded new copies of the footage faster than the sites could take them down. The video footage is disturbing even for adults, let alone younger people who have access to Facebook and YouTube and are tech savvy.  Surely, such violent footage should not be permitted since it poses a threat to young people and vulnerable people in our society. This incident has confirmed that we need faster, better systems to remove this sort of content from all social media.

At the European Parliament during the last few months we have been discussing a proposal to regulate the dissemination of terrorist content online and I have been in contact with relevant stakeholders, including Google and Facebook. Discussions have revolved around the need to strike the right balance. Whilst security is a top priority and a serious concern for citizens that we want to address, at the same time we also want to ensure that any new regulation will not suppress freedom of expression or impede the dissemination of journalistic, research or educational content.

Voicing the concerns of stakeholders, I have put forward amendments in the Committee responsible for Media – of which I am a member – and have participated in several political discussions and negotiations to ensure that such concerns are truly reflected. 

We have secured that content uploaded online by terrorists will be removed within one hour after a request by law-enforcement authorities. This is crucial, since the high number of shares and views of terrorist content happens within the first hours of the upload.

Member States will now be responsible for appointing competent authorities to arrange for the removal of such content. I have insisted that Member States should appoint truly independent authorities to remove illegal content online. Imagine having administrative authorities that are simply dependent on the Executive and  are then responsible for issuing a removal order of any particular content. This would be anti-democratic, which is why – whilst insisting that there should be only one competent authority (which can be one already in existence) – the competent authority must act independently of the government. This is why we have also called for transparency and for the competent authority to publish annual transparency reports on action taken, including the number of removal orders made.

In the course of discussions we have also called for the establishment of effective and accessible mechanisms allowing redress when it is considered that content has been unfairly removed.

Whilst we need to ensure such safeguards, it is also crucial for people to be cautious regarding  what they share online. This is why, in other circumstances, I have emphasised the need to invest more in media literacy, including in schools. 

We have to do more to fight extremism and hate online and I am committed to contribute to this fight. We cannot create a Europe that promotes the values of security, democracy and the rights and freedoms of European citizens, if we continue to allow the dissemination of terrorist and violent extremism content online. That is why we should make sure our shared system of norms, respect for human rights and diversity and the fundamental freedoms and principles on which our European project is built, are enshrined and protected.  Let us work together for a safer, secure online environment that promotes equality, has zero tolerance for hate speech and puts a stop to the sharing of violent material.

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