What do human rights defenders, journalists, archivists, and digital rights groups from California to Lebanon to Southeast Asia have in common? We all agree that the proposed Regulation on Dissemination of Terrorist Content Online, currently moving through the Committee process in the European Parliament, is a serious threat to free expression online—and, paradoxically, to efforts to fight violent propaganda.
That’s why WITNESS has come together with 25 other organizations and individuals to let Rapporteur Dan Dalton and the rest of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs know that this proposal doesn’t just threaten freedom of expression in Europe. It is also likely to threaten freedom of expression globally, by both inspiring dangerous copycat laws and by encouraging increased use of opaque machine-learning algorithms to remove content—including content created by human rights defenders, alternative media, and journalists. Our letter is based on real-world experience of exactly these problems.
In particular, as we note in the letter, Syrian Archive and WITNESS, as well as many of our partners, “have seen firsthand that use of machine-learning algorithms to detect ‘extremist content’ has created hundreds of thousands of false positives and damaged [a huge] body of human rights content.”As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, “”By placing the burden on companies to make rapid decisions in order to avoid penalties, this regulation will undoubtedly result in censorship of legitimate speech. That includes content essential “for prosecutions or other accountability processes across borders or in conflict situations.” The proposal ignores the incredible work of human rights defenders and journalists who “risk their freedom, safety, and sometimes even their lives to upload videos for the purpose of exposing abuses to the world. Without this documentation, we would have little idea what is happening in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, the favelas of Brazil, and elsewhere.”
We also note that the threats of misuse of the machinery created to comply with this proposal and copycat legislation are not hypothetical:
Germany’s NetzDG law is already inspiring replicas in authoritarian countries, including Russia. The impact of the European Union on global norms should be a net positive, especially in the face of a rising tide of political repression, violence and fascism. This regulation hinders efforts to fight that tide.
WITNESS is honored to bring together the diverse voices on this letter. In addition to leading global digital and human rights organizations like Amnesty International, our letter includes organizations doing vital work in their own countries, like 7amleh of Palestine. The letter also includes journalist organizations such as Reporters sans frontières and Southeast Asian Press Alliance and archives such as the Blinken Open Society Archives in Hungary. Lastly, the letter includes experts on ethical and effective open source investigations like Alexa Koenig of the Berkeley Human Rights Center and, of course, the Syrian Archive. We hope that the broad geographic and organizational range of signatories makes it clear—this regulation must not become law. Human rights demand better in any lawmaking body, and frankly, in the European Union, common decency demands better, too.
Follow us here on our blog, as well as on Twitter, to get updates on the progress of the legislation. The text of the letter is below, and you can download a pdf here.
Dear Members of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
The undersigned organizations and individuals are dedicated to ensuring justice for human rights abuses around the world and to upholding human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. We rely on online platforms to both find and share evidence of these abuses and to counter official misinformation from repressive governments. We write to urge you to oppose the proposed “regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online.”
We echo the voices that have already explained the flaws in this regulation, including a December 7 letter from three Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations which notes, “with serious concern what we believe to be insufficient consideration given to human rights protections in the context of the proposed rules governing content moderation policies.” We agree that this regulation does not comply with human rights standards. It contains overbroad and unclear definitions. It also leaves essential matters such as issuance of removal orders and other roles in the content removal process unsettled. Worse, this regulation not only encourages but essentially forces companies to bypass due process and make rapid and unaccountable decisions on expression through automated means. In fact, this regulation does not reflect the realities of how violent groups recruit and share information online, and these groups will continue to engage in that behavior. Instead, the regulation is most likely to hamper the efforts of journalists and human rights defenders, who use these platforms to help document, expose and tell the stories of human rights abuses – including when committed by armed groups.
We are writing to you because we know from experience that the danger posed by this regulation is not hypothetical. Due to difficulty with getting evidence for prosecutions or other accountability processes across borders or in conflict situations, some of us rely on social media sites that would be affected by this regulation, such as Facebook and YouTube. In fact, in 2017 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in the Al-Werfalli case that was based largely on videos found on social media. Similarly, some of us archive evidence of human rights abuses committed by governments and violent groups, and some verify content through well-established processes. In order to prosecute war crimes and terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, these archives are and will be vital. Finally, some of us work directly with, or are ourselves, human rights defenders that risk their freedom, safety, and sometimes even their lives to upload videos for the purpose of exposing abuses to the world. Without this documentation, we would have little idea what is happening in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, the favelas of Brazil, and elsewhere.
We have seen firsthand that use of machine-learning algorithms to detect “extremist content” has created hundreds of thousands of false positives and damaged this body of human rights content. One group, Syrian Archive, observed that after Google instituted a machine-learning algorithm to “more quickly identify and remove extremist and terrorism-related content” in June of 2017, hundreds of thousands of videos went missing. This included not only videos created by perpetrators of human rights abuses, but also documentation of shellings by victims, and even videos of demonstrations. Instead of working to address these problems, companies have refused to provide basic transparency around moderation processes or the machine-learning algorithms they are employing. This regulation would only worsen that problem.
In addition to devastating the processes being used to create and preserve human rights content, this regulation will harm some of the most vulnerable groups in the world by inspiring dangerous copycat regulation that will be used to silence essential voices of dissent. This is not hypothetical, as Germany’s NetzDG law is already inspiring replicas in authoritarian countries, including Russia. The impact of the European Union on global norms should be a net positive, especially in the face of a rising tide of political repression, violence and fascism. This regulation hinders efforts to fight that tide.
In conclusion, we urge you to oppose this regulation. Instead of passing new regulations, we urge Parliament to reconsider existing directives, make a thorough study on what is actually needed, and start again from scratch if a need for rapid content removal is real.
7amleh – Arab Center for Social Media Advancement (Palestine)
Alexa Koenig, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at Boalt School of Law, University of California, Berkeley*
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (Egypt)
Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Global
Bits of Freedom (Netherlands)
Blinken Open Society Archives (Hungary)
Dima Saber, Senior Research Fellow at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research*
Electronic Frontier Foundation
epicenter.works – for digital rights (Austria)
Freedom Forum (Nepal)
Global Voices Advox
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (Middle East)
Kari Papadopoulos, Faculty Member, Stockholm University Department of Journalism, Media and Communication*
La Quadrature du Net (France)
Open Rights Group (United Kingdom)
Reporters sans frontières (RSF) / Reporters Without Borders
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
SMEX (Social Media Exchange) (Lebanon)
Stichting IISG (Foundation International Institute of Social History) (Netherlands)
Syrian Archive (Germany)
Tara Vassefi, Washington Director, Truepic, Inc*
Viet Tan (Vietnam)
*Affiliations listed for identification purposes only
 Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online – general approach, 3 December 2018, available at http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-14978-2018-COR-1/en/pdf; File for Procedure 2018/0331/COD last updated 18 December 2018 available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/HIS/?uri=COM:2018:640:FIN
 Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering Terrorism, Communication to the European Union on draft EU Regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content , 7 December 2018, available at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=24234
 Kent Walker (General Counsel, Google) Four steps we’re taking today to fight terrorism online , Google Blog, 18 June 2017, https://www.blog.google/topics/google-europe/four-steps-were-taking-today-fight-online-terror/
28 January 2019
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.