Public demands action against internet companies in war against online extremism

74% of the public want the big internet companies to do more to locate and delete extremist content and 65% believe that they are not doing enough to combat radicalisation, Policy Exchange finds in its new report The New Netwar: Countering Online Extremism published today (Tuesday). Exclusive new analysis of jihadist activity online, published ahead of the Prime Minister co-chairing a meeting with web giants, shows that we are not winning this war and that Isis’s online output has not fallen – even while they have been losing territory on the ground.

General David Petraeus, former US Commander in Iraq and Afghanistan and Director of the CIA, has written a foreword for the report in which he refers to Friday’s terrorist attack at Parsons Green:

“The fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda and the other elements of the global jihadist movement has become the defining struggle of the early 21st Century.  That struggle has increasingly been contested not just on the ground, but in a new domain of warfare, cyberspace.  The attempted bombing of an underground train in London last Friday – using a device that can be built from instructions available online – merely underscored once again the ever-present nature of this threat.

“Jihadists have shown particular facility in exploiting ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world.  And now, as this new Policy Exchange report shows, they are also exploiting the vast, largely ungoverned spaces in cyberspace, demonstrating increasing technical expertise, sophistication in media production, and agility in the face of various efforts to limit its access. It is clear that that our counter-extremism efforts and other initiatives to combat extremism on line have, until now, been inadequate. There is no doubting the urgency of this matter.  The status quo clearly is unacceptable.”

Dr Martyn Frampton, Policy Exchange’s Co-Head of Security and Extremism, the lead author of the report, said:

“The evidence suggests that we are not winning the war against online extremism and we need to consider options for change. It is clear that the public wants change – and that a majority of people support more robust action by the government. If the internet companies won’t do what their customers want and take more responsibility for removing this content, then government must take action through additional regulation and legislation.

“Although Isis is losing on the ground, their virtual output has been consistent throughout the last three years. If we neglect the online networks that jihadists use to disseminate their poisonous ideology, movements like ISIS, and the horrors they inspire, will endure even after their physical infrastructure is removed. It is the online networks that give them the ability to reach into our society and target, in particular, the most vulnerable sections of our society.

“Governments and security services have been playing a fruitless game of ‘whack-a-mole’, focused on removing individual pieces of content. We need to go beyond this to disrupt the jihadists’ dissemination networks. We can only do this if the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook are willing to do their bit to defend the free society that created them.”

Policy Exchange’s comprehensive analysis of the struggle against online extremism includes a major new survey on public attitudes, which finds that:

  • 74% of people want big internet companies to be more proactive in locating and deleting extremist content; 65% believe they are not doing enough to combat online radicalisation
  • 72% believe it is internet companies’ responsibility to control or remove extremist content, while 53% believe it is the government’s responsibility
  • 75% of people support the creation of an independent regulator to monitor online content
  • 74% of people support new legislation to criminalise the persistent viewing of extremist material online, and 73% back legislation to criminalise the possession and consumption of extremist material
  • 66% of people believe the internet should be a “regulated space” in which extreme material should be controlled;
  • Women and older participants in the survey were more likely than men to favour tougher measures and regulation

Public attitudes on this issue – which show a lack of confidence in current efforts to stop online extremism – chime with expert analysis of the jihadist movement’s activities online. Researchers commissioned by Policy Exchange found that:

  • Isis’s output is not, contrary to reports, falling – it has been consistent over the last three years.
  • Isis relies on a ‘swarmcast’ – an interconnected network that constantly reconfigures itself and is highly resilient to disruption. An average week will see over one hundred new core articles, videos and newspapers produced by ISIS and disseminated across a vast ecosystem of platforms, file sharing services, websites and social media.
  • Isis have adapted to shifts in technology and now use Telegram as their core communication platform for talking to sympathisers – even as platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook remain vital for missionary activity.
  • The UK is the number one country in Europe for accessing ISIS content on Telegram.
  • News coverage of jihadist content and the activities of researchers are inadvertently helping to make jihadist content more ‘findable’ and durable online.

At present, the war against online extremism is not being won. Change is required, both in government policy and in the attitude of major internet companies. Policy Exchange’s new report considers options including:

  • The government should apply continued pressure on the internet companies to do more to remove such content and so dry up the supply of extremist material.
  • The forthcoming Commission on Extremism should be empowered to oversee the removal of extremist content.
  • The government should consider creating an independent regulator for internet companies which would have the power to levy financial penalties on those companies that are falling short in their obligations to remove extremist content
  • Academic researchers should develop an ethical code of conduct for the use and collation of jihadist material to ensure that they do not inadvertently disseminate it
  • The government should consider new legislation to stop the possession and consumption of extremist material, building on the work done to tackle child pornography.