WASHINGTON - Europe is taking on propaganda videos and social media accounts that glorify terrorism and extremism in an effort to limit the space for extremist groups to recruit people online, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, known as Europol, said this week.
The decision was made following two days of meetings last week by Europol’s European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU), at its headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, the agency said in a statement Monday.
“This coordinated action focused on the dissemination of online terrorist content. Among the items referred were propaganda videos and social media accounts glorifying or supporting terrorism and violent extremism,” the agency said in a statement.
The crackdown came after meetings between law enforcement and judicial authorities in Europe aimed at launching a joint effort to disrupt Islamic State’s online activities, the agency said, adding that they have been addressing this issue since 2015.
“Since July 2015, the EU IRU of Europol has been working with law enforcement authorities and online service providers to address the terrorist abuse of the internet in the framework of the EU Internet Forum,” the statement added.
In an operation last week, Europol and law enforcement authorities in 12 European countries removed more than 26,000 items supporting Islamic State’s ideology.
“They have disappeared from an important part of the internet,” Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesperson for the Belgian prosecutor’s office, said at a news conference at Europol headquarters in The Hague.
For the operation, the agency had been collaborating with nine online service providers, including Telegram, Google, Files.fm, Twitter, Instagram and Dropbox.
Among them, Telegram was the online service provider that contained the most extremism-related material, according to Europol, which praised Telegram for “its efforts to root out … malicious content.”
Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov responded Tuesday to Europol’s appreciation via his official Telegram channel.
“After the ISIS attacks in Europe, we have zero tolerance for their propaganda on our platform,” Durov said, using an acronym for the militant group.
“At the same time, we’ll continue to defend our users’ absolute right to privacy like no other service, proving that you don’t have to sacrifice privacy for security,” he added.
Telegram has been used by IS members because the app provides encryption for private communications.
According to a report released this summer by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, Telegram serves “as a stable online platform for pro-IS content, an ecosystem for building extremist networks, an effective and secure internal communications tool, and a forum for recruiting new IS members.”
Experts charge that Islamic State’s online recruitment strategy, with the use of encrypted apps and automated bots, poses a challenge for European law enforcement units that want to monitor its online activities.
“Research shows that European policymakers and companies alike often focus on the restriction and removal of internet content to contain the spread of extremist messaging. But that censorship can lead extremists to focus their recruitment activities elsewhere,” Kate Cox, a senior analyst at RAND Europe, told VOA.
“What is needed are approaches that are grounded in intelligence collection involving close partnerships between law enforcement and social media companies in order to map extremist networks, identify capabilities and highlight potential targets,” Cox added.
Some experts point out that even though a lot has been done to exert more control over the online space to prevent the IS propaganda, there are many “offline” networks that could pose a threat of terrorist recruitment in Europe.
“I think over the last two years, there has been a lot of effort to exercise more control on the online space [IS online presence] both with active takedown measures and regulatory measures … but it’s not the primary channel of recruitment,” Raphael Bossong, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told VOA.
“All research shows that it is also and much more importantly the social ties, more contacts that people have, and then once they have a certain environment, a certain personal involvement, they may be going further into the online world,” Bossong said.
According to experts, Europe’s anti-terrorism measures are broadly defined, and efforts by tech companies to counter the problem of extremist material online are faced with obstacles because it overlaps with free speech and people’s ability to express themselves online.
“The European Union’s own Directive on Combating Terrorism has a vague definition of terrorism that risks negative consequences for free expression, particularly online, and could have a range of downstream impacts, such as on the right to public protest and demonstration,” according to a report released this month by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford.
“Free expression is at risk when governments pass counterterrorism laws that use imprecise and unclear passages criminalizing the ‘glorification of terrorism and its provocation,’ ” the report added.
There is also the debate among free speech advocates and experts over issues pertaining to people’s privacy and the broader security implications of allowing jihadist groups like Islamic State to operate on these platforms.
“There are obvious tensions — privacy and free speech on the one hand, and safety and security on the other,” Maura Conway, a Dublin-based academic who studies fighting online extremism and is coordinator of VOX-Pol, told VOA.
“The role of the internet, and social media in particular in this case, in violent extremism and terrorism was not something that internet companies wished to countenance early in their development, but is certainly an area that they now acknowledge is one in which workable solutions need to be found,” Conway added.
Rikar Hussein contributed to this report, and some information for this report came from Reuters.