How extremist videos are hitting UK relations with US tech groups

Britain accuses research website of refusing to remove violent Islamist content has been accused of refusing to remove violent content © FT Montage/Dreamstime
Automattic, the US tech group that owns web design company WordPress, and a little known academic research platform are at the centre of a long-running battle with the UK government over what officials say is a refusal to remove violent Islamist videos. and its founder, Washington-based analyst Aaron Zelin, claim the site is a vital research portal that provides a valuable service for academics, policymakers and journalists researching Islamist extremism.
However, UK security officials say it could be used as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda. They want Mr Zelin and Automattic, which hosts the site through WordPress, to remove or password protect some of the more violent and disturbing videos it publishes.
The stand-off between the Silicon Valley group, Mr Zelin and the UK authorities highlights the struggle between western governments and big US technology companies to reduce the impact and spread of extremist content online.

Freedom of expression v national security

But it also underscores the dilemma governments face in drawing the line between freedom of expression and matters of national security.
Last month the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which scrutinises the work of the country’s intelligence services, published a report urging government to increase the pressure on businesses to pull advertising from platforms that fail to take down illegal and inappropriate content. 
Contained within the ISC report on 2017 terror attacks in London and Manchester was a reference to an unnamed website that “hosts multiple videos . . . featuring violent and disturbing images”, which had refused “multiple requests from the UK and European partners to remove the videos”.
Although the ISC and Home Office declined to comment on the names of the entities redacted from the ISC report, government officials confirmed the example cited by the ISC involved Automattic and Jihadology. 
“It is incredibly difficult,” said Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London. “The online nature of this makes it ubiquitous. What Aaron does is totally legitimate but it’s being used by other people for a different purpose.”
Mr Zelin told the Financial Times that his website was for “academic knowledge” and rejected claims it was being used by terrorists. “So many people use it to understand what’s going on,” he said. “It’s used in so many positive ways.”
He acknowledged that he had received multiple requests to shut down the site from the UK government during the past two years.
The website, which Mr Zelin said is a personal project and not associated with his work at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank, describes itself as a “clearing house for jihadi primary source material”.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute, said: “Through his work with the institute, Dr Zelin contributes enormously to scholarly inquiry as a path to defeating radical extremism. His website, Jihadology, was a private project that he began before joining the institute and it remains his sole and exclusive responsibility as clearly stated on the website: ‘Jihadology is a personal project of Aaron Y Zelin and is not associated with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’.”

Videos appear to show prisoners being killed

A recent search of the site reveals several posts and videos from militant groups such as al-Qaeda, Isis and Al-Shabaab, which are freely accessible. Some of the more graphic videos viewed by the FT show militants apparently killing prisoners or rival fighters.
Although UK security officials and the Home Office say many of the big technology groups have been more responsive to requests to take down material since last year’s terror attacks, there remains frustration at some sites and platforms that refuse to co-operate. 
“It is reckless to publish terrorist propaganda online without safeguards to stop those vulnerable to radicalisation from seeing it,” the UK government said in a statement.
“We accept there will be limited journalistic and academic justifications for viewing terrorist content, but we expect technology companies to remove such content where it exists on their platforms for all to see.”

Legislation set to tighten rules

A new counter terror bill being considered by parliament will make it an offence to stream or view online information likely to be useful to a terrorist. Under current legislation an offence is only committed if the material is downloaded. 
Civil liberties groups say the new law risks criminalising academics and journalists.
Criticism of Automattic and WordPress is not new. In March 2017, just after the Westminster Bridge attack, which led to the deaths of five people, former home secretary Amber Rudd identified as one of the smaller tech platforms that terrorists were using to spread propaganda.
In a statement WordPress’s parent company Automattic refused to be drawn on whether it had received multiple requests to take down videos on the Jihadology site.
Automattic said: “We look closely at the context to determine whether certain content is being published for the purposes of informing or educating the public.”
Company data for the first half of this year showed it received 16 requests from the UK government to take down sites or content it hosted, which resulted in six being acted upon.
“We do not tolerate terrorist activity or incitement of violence on our platform,” Automattic added.
Mr Zelin said he was considering password protecting some of the more graphic and disturbing content on his site but not all of it. 
“The UK is being short sighted,” he said. “I’m just a person who does research on these issues. There were jihadis before I set up my website and there will be jihadis afterwards.”



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