Sunday 26. September 2021
#215 - May 2018

Respecting fundamental rights online and the fight against terrorism

What is the European Union doing to counter illegal content online while ensuring respect of fundamental rights of citizens? “Welcome to complexity” says Mari Sol Pérez Guevara - Policy officer in DG CONNECT at the European Commission, in an interview with Europe-infos.

Does terrorism content available and disseminated online impact recruitment, radicalisation and perpetration of terrorist attacks?


The intuitive reply that I received recently from a group of Master's students is "Yes, it does." But I did not receive any hard fact from them to support their views. Policy makers need well-substantiated analysis in order to take the right policy decisions in an area where there is a high risk of impacting fundamental rights and in particular freedom of speech.

So, how much do we know about this phenomenon? The EU is financing a network of universities to research violent political extremism, VoxPol. They have concluded that "Radicalisation is rather cyber-enabled than cyber-dependent". Their 2017 report explains that the online environment is changing very rapidly and predicting online terrorist activities is therefore challenging for policymakers. Therefore, we need rolling research and continual updating of findings in order to formulate balanced policies.


What is the legal liability of digital intermediaries in relation to illegal content uploaded by third parties? What about their social responsibility?


In EU law, the legal liability of digital intermediaries (e.g Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram…) in relation to content uploaded by third parties is harmonised by the eCommerce Directive. Back in 2000, this directive established a frame for the development of the Internet and the protection of freedom of speech online: digital intermediaries are not liable for content. This exemption from liability is limited: when they are notified by a user of the fact that they host illegal content, they have to remove it. If they fail to do so, then they become liable for that content. Another key legal principle is that Member States cannot impose "general monitoring obligations" on digital intermediaries. Vice-President of the European Commission Ansip affirmed recently that the EU will not change these principles "Because I do not want Europe to become a 'Big Brother' society in online monitoring".

Digital intermediaries have voluntarily committed to cooperate with the EU and its Member states to fight illegal content online in several self-regulatory initiatives. In the area of terrorism, this is done through the Internet Forum established in December 2015. What are their incentives to cooperate? They too are victims of third parties who abuse their services to carry out illegal activities online. Moreover, these activities can undermine the trust of their users and damage their business models. Finally, by fighting illegal activities online, they publicly demonstrate their social responsibility.


How to find a balance between promoting the removal of illegal content, including terrorist content, and respect of freedom of speech online?


On 1st March 2018, the European Commission adopted a Recommendation on measures to effectively tackle illegal content online. On the one hand, the Commission recommends digital intermediaries to put in place mechanisms to facilitate removal of illegal content, notably a user-friendly process for users to notify illegal content, automated means for detection of illegal content, reinforced cooperation with law enforcement authorities and 'trusted flagger' programmes. On the other hand, the Recommendation also proposes strong safeguards to avoid the removal of legal content: the possibility to contest the decision to remove a piece of content; a high standard of transparency regarding content removal on the part of digital platforms, both ex ante by explaining their removal policy and ex post by reporting on their activities, together with human assessment of the context when automated removal techniques are deployed.


There is a lively discussion around the question of whether the balance struck is the right one. The conversation will continue and the European Commission is listening. Member States and digital intermediaries are invited to report by June to the Commission on the application of the Recommendation in relation to terrorist aspect. Stakeholders were invited to comment on possible next steps to fight illegal content online during the month of March 2018 and their replies can now be consulted. The European Commission has also launched an online public consultation until 25 June.


What could be the role of Christians in this process?


This matter is extremely complex and the digital environment is changing very quickly. At the same time, Christians should embrace this complexity: there are no simple answers to complexity. They should participate as citizens in the public consultations that will shape future public policy. As Pope Francis tells us by quoting the U.S. bishops: “Responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.”    


Mari Sol Pérez Guevara

Policy officer in DG CONNECT in the European Commission



Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and in no way represent the view of the European Commission and its services


EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.