What can we do to make our communities and citizens safe from online hate speech and extremist propaganda? At the Google Online Safety Summit, held on 4 February in Brussels, digital innovators, policymakers, and practitioners came together to debate this question and launch 29 select new initiatives ranging from educational approaches to community projects to technology innovations.
These projects are funded by Google.org’s Impact Challenge on Safety, a €10 million fund “to support organisations across Europe that are working on challenges related to hate, extremism, and child safety, both online and offline.” As a hub of expertise on radical and extremist (hate) speech and counter-terrorism strategic communications, the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) was invited to sit on Google’s expert panel, reviewing proposed initiatives, selecting top applicants, and participating in the summit.
A key debate of the day focused on striking a proportional balance between regulation of the online space to protect vulnerable populations, and protection of the right to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right and essential foundation of a democratic society. Tommaso Chiamparino, the European Commission’s Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred, made a strong case in favour of additional harmonised legislation at the European level, noting that the Commission is planning to revise the rules on illegal content online, including hate speech, in the coming years.
She advocates for better use of existing legislation rather than adding more regulation. Using what already exists better affords countries the opportunity to learn what additional legislation is actually needed, and to adapt and revise existing text rather than starting from scratch. This iterative approach is best supported by regular monitoring, evaluation and oversight of legislative provisions by appropriate governmental and independent bodies.
The summit was, of course, more than just a debate. Several Google.org Impact Challenge on Safety grantees showcased project ideas that are delivering on-the-ground solutions to these challenges. One organisation in the spotlight was The Fare network, a Dutch-based non-profit working to develop a networked approach to tackling far-right extremism in football. Football is a sport of passion, but is also rife with discrimination, hate crimes and groups linked to far-right extremism. The Fare network, working in partnership with UEFA, FIFA and over 5000 football clubs and organisations around the world, has published a booklet of the signs and symbols of right-wing extremists in the football context. The organisation will use Google.org funding to translate this manual into digital tools to monitor extremist content online, and to develop a digital platform to train police, stadium security, football club staff – such as media and communications departments – and others about how to identify and deconstruct far-right narratives.
The challenge for The Fare network – and for its partners – is how to balance the security benefits provided by platform-based prevention tools against the right to freedom of expression, as well as legislation protecting data privacy and personal data. What kind of automations, such as context-sensitive keyword monitoring, can be deployed to accelerate the process of takedowns and content blocking? And what about content that doesn’t neatly fall into the category of prohibited speech? For example, does it make sense – and what are the associated legal constraints – to block every post containing the word ‘monkey’ on Inter Milan’s club Facebook page, given that striker Romelu Lukaku has repeatedly been targeted by racist monkey chants at matches? What role can human review have in mitigating both the associated legal and contextual challenges? These are questions that will need to be answered as The Fare network and other grantees begin translating their initiatives into reality.
There are also organisations taking a different, non-technological approach. Notably, in Germany, the president of the Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt pledged to deny club membership to supporters of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. This was an important, if largely symbolic, act intended to demonstrate the club’s genuine commitment to diversity and tolerance. It was also a rare move to link words and actions in the football stadium – a traditionally politics-free space – to broader cultural attitudes and political debates in German society. That the AfD then filed charges of defamation against Eintracht Frankfurt’s president is perhaps an unwelcome footnote to this story, although it reinforces the central role of the legal system in determining the limits of freedom of expression.
At the end of the day, the Online Safety Summit was an opportunity to get inspired about ways to challenge, counter and ultimately eradicate the scourge of online hate speech and extremist propaganda. The event served as an important reminder that is our collective responsibility to build safer online communities while protecting our freedoms.