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Tackling Online Terrorist Content Together: Cooperation between Counterterrorism Law Enforcement and Technology Companies

Tackling Online Terrorist Content Together: Cooperation between Counterterrorism Law Enforcement and Technology Companies
24th January 2023 Prof. Stuart Macdonald

The Executive Summary is also available in FrenchGermanArabic, Indonesian and Japanese.

Cooperation between law enforcement and tech companies is widely regarded as necessary to tackle online terrorist content. Both sectors have publicly stated their commitment to working together and there are examples of mutual cooperation. Yet there are also impediments to such collaboration, including different cultures and operating practices, and there have been high-profile instances of non-cooperation. The informality of existing collaborations has also led to concerns about censorship, mission creep and a lack of accountability and oversight.

The focus of this report is on how to resolve the impediments to closer cooperation between law enforcement and the tech sector in order to realise the benefits of mutual collaboration, while simultaneously addressing concerns about due process and accountability. The report utilises an interview-based methodology to examine the experiences and opinions of personnel from both sectors who have first-hand experience of mutual cooperation. It provides empirically grounded insights into this under-researched topic.

The report’s findings are organised around four themes:

  • Shared appreciation of the threat: Participants from both sectors emphasised the importance of tackling online terrorist content. From a law enforcement perspective, this stemmed from a conviction that such content has an important influence in practice, whereas tech sector participants emphasised the growing range of online services and the increasing sophistication and secrecy of the online activities of terrorists.
  • Progress to date: Interviewees described how initial attempts at cross-sector collaboration had been difficult. Reasons for this included different ideological cultures, an absence of established channels for communication or cooperation, and differing expectations. The key catalysts for change were the significant presence on Twitter of Islamic State during the period between 2013 and 2015 and the Christchurch attacks of 2019. Participants described how major tech companies began to invest more heavily in the removal of terrorist content, including the recruitment of personnel from a policing background, while law enforcement began to deliver specific training on cooperation with social media companies.
  •  Current challenges: Participants stressed that tensions remain. Law enforcement interviewees expressed frustration at the length of time it can take for requests to be resolved and at a perceived failure by tech companies to incorporate safeguards into the design of new technologies. The chief concern expressed by tech sector interviewees was the process by which law enforcement referrals were and are made and the tenuous link to terrorism of some of the referrals received.
  • Next steps: Given the different objectives and challenges faced by law enforcement and the tech sector, our participants felt that the most important priority in advancing cross-sector cooperation was increasing mutual understanding. Three specific measures were suggested to achieve this: clear channels of communication; greater information-sharing; and dedicated training and recruitment.

The report concludes with four recommendations aimed at resolving the impediments to closer cooperation between law enforcement and the tech sector while simultaneously addressing concerns about due process and accountability. These are: the development of an experience exchange programme; the implementation of a takedown-shutdown counterterrorism policing protocol; a joint upstreaming programme founded on a proactive preventative ethos; and the development of joint strategic research requirements.

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