Dutch govt announces plan to fight jihadist internet use through sort-of-voluntary censorship

UPDATE 2017-06-17: updates moved to bottom.

Earlier this week I blogged about the 13 best practices to “reduce terrorist use of the internet” that were the outcome of the somewhat controversial Clean IT project (2011-2013). Today, August 29th 2014, the Dutch government announced (in Dutch) a “strengthening” of their “integral approach” to cope with jihadism & radicalization, and part of that seems to be the implementation of several of the Clean IT best practices. Here is my translation of the relevant paragraph in today’s announcement:

Social media

The government wants to fight the distribution of radicalizing, hate-mongering, violent jihadist online information. Producers and distributors of online jihadist propaganda and the digital platforms they abuse will be identified. This information will be actively shared with the competent authorities and relevant service providers (including internet services).

An expert team of the National Police will focus on fighting the online distribution of those data. This team will inform the Public Prosecutor about potentially punishable expressions (under existing expression offenses). If application of the voluntary behavioral code does not lead to removal, a criminal warrant can follow. The team will also make agreements with internet companies about effective blocking.

Internet companies who persist in facilitating ‘listed’ terrorist organizations by distributing jihadist content, will be addressed. Furthermore, an actualized list of online jihadist (social media) websites will be published. Communities, professionals and parents can use this list to warn their social environment.

Specifically, the 38 step action plan (.pdf, in Dutch) states the following under action #29 (I translated from Dutch):

  • 29. Fighting distribution of radical, hate-mongering jihadist content

    • Concerned citizens can report jihadist (terrorist, hate-mongering and violence-glorifying) content on the Internet and social media.
    • Producers and distributors of online jihadist propaganda and the digital platforms they abuse are identified.
    • This information is actively shared with the competent authorities and relevant service providers (including Internet services).
    • A specialist team from the National Police fights online jihadist content. This team informs the Public Prosecutor about potentially criminal statements (under existing offences of expression). If the voluntary code of conduct does not lead to removal, a criminal warrant may follow. The bill Cybercrime III is proposed to further improve this procedure (Notice and Takedown).
    • This team makes agreements with Internet companies on effective blocking and provides them referrals to evaluate the content against their own terms of use (Notice and Take Action).
    • Internet companies that persist (after being informed) in facilitating ‘listed’ terrorist organizations by distributing jihadist content, will be addressed either based on an adaptation of EU Regulation 2580/2001 (.pdf) in conjunction with the national sanctions regime against terrorism in 2002, or on the basis of national regulations to be determined.
    • The specialist team will monitor independently, but works closely together with the online citizen hotline.
    • An updated list of online jihadist (social media) websites will be published. This list can be used by, among others, communities, professionals and parents to warn their social environment.

So, the government essentially proposes a voluntary code of conduct for “internet companies” (29d) and, if they don’t comply, intends to enforce content removal through currently non-existing legislation (29f). Note that a leaked draft (.pdf) of the Clean IT project listed under “to be discussed” the proposal of taking obedience of internet companies into account when awarding public contracts.

A key question is to what extent this plan will turn out to impose new (and possibly extrajudicial?) restrictions on freedom of expression, as internet companies will also have to assess content against there own Terms & Conditions. How exactly will the National Police and internet companies in practice distinguish terrorist content from non-terrorist content? As stated here and here by Rejo Zenger (Bits of Freedom), it should be legality of content, not the question of whether content is in good taste, that should determine whether content should be removed/blocked. The final, public deliverable (.pdf, January 2013; unofficial HTML version available here) of the Clean IT project contains ample claims concerning human rights and freedoms, as shown in the aforementioned previous post. Let’s see how those claims hold up.

As a reminder: the Clean IT project sought, through a “structured public-private dialogue” and consensus, methods to “reduce terrorist use of the internet”. The following governments participated in the Clean IT project:

  • Austria (Federal Ministry of the Interior);
  • Belgium (Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis);
  • Denmark;
  • Hungary (Counter-terrorism Centre);
  • Germany (Federal Ministry of the Interior);
  • Greece (Hellenic Police);
  • Netherlands (National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security);
  • Portugal (Polícia Judiciária);
  • Romania (Romanian Intelligence Service).
  • Spain (Centro Nacional de Coordinación Antiterrorista);
  • United Kingdom (Office for Security and Counter Terrorism).

I don’t know whether any other countries (participants or non-participants of the Clean IT project) have implemented, or are planning to implement, any policies resembling the 13 best practices recommended in the final deliverable of the Clean IT project.

Related (academic):

Related (other):

UPDATES (from new to old)

UPDATE 2017-06-17:Politie te kort door bocht in strijd tegen jihadisme“; good read, in Dutch, from Rejo Zenger (Twitter: @rejozenger) of Bits of Freedom, critically reflecting on efforts of the Dutch police, planned to start per September 2017, to fight online terrorist propaganda, e.g. calls for jihad, by directly requesting communication service providers (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to remove content. No warrant or court is involved, unless providers don’t comply; in that case, prosecution might be considered. In an NOS news item on Dutch televison, academic Jelle van Buuren (Leiden University) points out that the role of online propaganda in radicalization should not be overestimated; and that aspects such as social contacts, and ‘what happens on the streets’, play a role in radicalization as well.

UPDATE 2015-07-01: EU Observer reports: “The EU’s police agency Europol on Wednesday launched its web unit tasked to hunt down online extremist propaganda. Europol’s director Rob Wainwright said the unit is “aimed at reducing terrorist and extremist online propaganda.” The unit consists of over a dozen Europol officials and experts from national authorities.” The name of the unit is the European Union Internet Referral Unit (IRU).

UPDATE 2015-06-02: EDRi reports that the European Commission is set to launch a related initiative in 2015.

UPDATE 2015-03-04: on March 12-13, the JHA ministers meet again, and according to the Dutch govt’s annotated agenda (.doc, in Dutch) for that meet, “cooperation is sought with the private sector and Europol to detect [Dutch: “opsporen”] content that propagates terrorism and violent extremism, and for developing strategic communication to provide a counter-narrative against terrorist ideologies and that promotes tolerance, non-discrimination and fundamental freedoms.”

UPDATE 2014-xx-xx/2015-xx-xx: relevant reading: Terrorism, Communication and New Media: Explaining Radicalization in the Digital Age (2015, Archetti, in Perspectives on Terrorism Vol 9, No 1) and The Taliban and Twitter: Tactical Reporting and Strategic Messaging (2014, Bernatis, in Perspectives on Terrorism Vol 8, No 6).

UPDATE 2015-01-30: a joint statement (.pdf, Jan 30) following an informal meeting on Jan 29/30 2015 of the EU Member States’ ministers for Justice & Home Affairs promotes the idea of “cooperat[ing] closely with the industry and to encourage them to remove terrorist and extremist content from their platforms”: “We reiterate the urgent need for further actions addressing radicalization to terrorism not only on EU but also on national and local level. The internet plays a significant role in radicalization. In this regard, we must strengthen our efforts to cooperate closely with the industry and to encourage them to remove terrorist and extremist content from their platforms. The further possibilities to detect and remove illegal content, in full respect of fundamental rights, fundamental freedoms and in full accordance to national legislation. The possible creation of effective counter-narratives, notably on social media, should also be explored. In this context, Internet referral capabilities, also through Check-the-web, could be developed within Europol to support efforts of Member States in detecting illegal content and improving exchange of information. The development of different preventive projects within the future RAN Centre of Excellence and the maximum use of the Syria Strategic Communication Advisory Team (SSCAT) should also be strengthened.”

UPDATE 2015-01-11: in a joint statement (.pdf) following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the interior ministers of France, Germany, Latvia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the U.K. stated while the internet must remain “in scrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms, a forum for free expression, in full respect of the law,” ISPs need to help “create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible”. Seven out of the twelve countries that signed the statement have participated in the Clean IT Project: it is clear that the — Dutch-chaired — Clean IT Project resulted in the current ‘critical mass’ behind the policy objective of voluntary censorship. Recall that one of the topics that was internally scheduled to be discussed during the Clean IT Project was whether non-compliant ISPs should be excluded from government contracts. It’s not clear what happened to that idea; hopefully it was rejected at a very early stage, and will not be (re)introduced into the policy debate.

UPDATE 2014-12-20: Dutch readers may also want to browse http://www.polarisatie-radicalisering.nl (website made by the NCTV; contains a lot of information and reports).

UPDATE 2014-10-14: the Dutch Hosting Provider Association (DHPA), that represents Dutch ISP’s, posted a press release (in Dutch) stating the DHPA opposes the Dutch govt’s voluntary censorship plan. The NCTV responded (.pdf, in Dutch) by calling upon ISPs to cooperate in fighting online radicalization within the available legal means (thus implying the NCTV considers voluntary censorship to be within such means).

UPDATE 2014-09-01: Dutch readers: see Arnoud Engelfriet’s take on this: Kabinet wil notice/takedown van extremistische uitingen opvoeren.

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