How Long Before This Tool to Censor Images from Terrorists Gets Misused?

Amid European calls for speech crackdown, social media companies introduce tool for easier deletions.


Imagine China/Newscom

Four major tech and social media companies—Twitter, YouTube, Google, and Facebook—are combining to censor the internet! But they're doing it for a good cause (and because of government pressure), they say. We're going to have to see what actually comes of it.

The four companies announced that they're working together on a tool that will help them prevent imagery or content produced by terrorists from spreading online. Google in Europe explains:

Starting today, we commit to the creation of a shared industry database of "hashes" — unique digital "fingerprints" — for violent terrorist imagery or terrorist recruitment videos or images that we have removed from our services. By sharing this information with each other, we may use the shared hashes to help identify potential terrorist content on our respective hosted consumer platforms. We hope this collaboration will lead to greater efficiency as we continue to enforce our policies to help curb the pressing global issue of terrorist content online.

Our companies will begin sharing hashes of the most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos we have removed from our services — content most likely to violate all of our respective companies' content policies. Participating companies can add hashes of terrorist images or videos that are identified on one of our platforms to the database. Other participating companies can then use those hashes to identify such content on their services, review against their respective policies and definitions, and remove matching content as appropriate.

As we continue to collaborate and share best practices, each company will independently determine what image and video hashes to contribute to the shared database. No personally identifiable information will be shared, and matching content will not be automatically removed. Each company will continue to apply its own policies and definitions of terrorist content when deciding whether to remove content when a match to a shared hash is found. And each company will continue to apply its practice of transparency and review for any government requests, as well as retain its own appeal process for removal decisions and grievances. As part of this collaboration, we will all focus on how to involve additional companies in the future.

To start with the obvious response: There's nothing inherently wrong or inappropriate about the companies working together and censoring violent content or declining to host it on their platforms.

Ultimately, though, how this tool gets used is what matters. Once a tool can be used to censor, en masse, a violent photo from some terrorist of the Islamic State, that tool can be used to censor anything in similar broad strokes. Recall that Facebook recently had an odd little controversy when it temporarily censored a well-known, historically significant photo from the Vietnam War because it contained nudity.

Leaders in European countries, where they don't have nearly the level of commitment to free speech when people say things that those in power deem to be bigotry or hate speech, are pushing social media platforms to engage in wider forms of censorship of content.

As Andrea O'Sullivan noted earlier today, social media companies are beginning to embrace a "gatekeeper" mentality after previously marketing themselves as free-wheeling communication platforms. Will they resist the pressure to use this technology to censor other forms of content at the request of governments?

NEXT: Who Would Star in '2016: The Movie'? Anthony L. Fisher Discusses on Federalist Radio Hour

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. You can’t spell “Google” without “leg goo,” either.

    1. Set my Leg Goo free!!! Leggo my leg goo!!!

  2. Well, when enough people get censored, somebody will introduce a new platform.

    1. Meh. It’s shady. Once companies start collaborating to do this shit, I begin to remember why anti-Trust laws exist.

      Between the amount of money and the amount of life destroying (both literal and figurative) tools at their opposition’s fingertips, anybody going against them in earnest would have to be a zealot/hero of the highest order.

      1. Except the government is asking them to do it. So the government’s going to pass a law from keeping private companies from complying with its pressure?

  3. Shouldn’t we want this all out in the open? If you drive it underground, it makes it harder to track.

    1. But if your goal is to radicalize young college students, your images need to be seen on The Harvard Facebook.

  4. How long? How about “I wonder if this will actually be used against terrorists before it is used against ordinary “distasteful speech”.

    1. Truth

  5. What’s the smallest measurable unit of time?

    They are going to abuse the fuck out of this….

  6. When I think about what SJWs consider to be “terrorism” I figure it will happen very quickly.

  7. Talk about a tailor-made tool for oppression. Does its stated purpose even exist? Has anyone ever been radicalized by a picture? If images had that kind of power, i would have turned into a naked Slavic supermodel back in college.

    1. And another 100000x after that.

  8. Looks like the kids from the universities we’ve been reading about are beginning to move into positions of power and the assertion that these tools will only be used against terrorists is a laughable lie. If they clamp down too much, as the above poster points out, a new platform will be developed and the people who have been censored will migrate to it, not necessarily a bad thing.

  9. My wager: this gets used to crack down on dissent before there’s a documented case of it being used to thwart terrorism.

    1. My wager:

      I’ll take that bet. I don’t think there will ever be a case of it being used to thwart terrorism, documented or otherwise.

  10. are combining to censor the internet!

    The Internet is a proper name.

    I don’t write well enough to make a fuss about this myself. That’s what I pay reason for.

  11. Can’t we compromise and allow disputed content to be seen only by people who don’t want to look at it?

  12. Looks to me like said companies are committing suicide. How long before we hear ‘too big to fail’ again? Before or after the renewed calls to make those companies public properties?

    Any new news on Obumbles cowardly give-away of American sovereignty, i.e. handing control of the internet over to foreign entities? How long before Germany, China, N Korea, and Saudi Arabia have some say over what content is available here in the US?

    1. Thats plain and simple not what happened. You can freak out, but you are wrong.

  13. Rufus already starts the morning tread on my browser.

  14. “How Long Before This Tool to Censor Images from Terrorists Gets Misused?”

    Probably tomorrow. More importantly, how long will the economic calamity that is the Obama administration continue. I’m looking at my Index fund valuation and beginning to think about retiring.

  15. “Terrorist videos,” or as they say in Erdogan’s Turkey: a video made by the left-wing secular opposition.

  16. Go on everybody, keep backing up all your photos to the cloud for scanning and algols – remember it’s ‘free!’

  17. Wouldn’t Net Neutrality regs make this action illegal?

    1. Nope, net neutrality doesn’t apply to “content” companies, only infrastructure providers like ISPs.

  18. Like in South Park: “We have a program to trace trolls”

    “But doesn’t that mean it can be used to track anyone?”

    “Uhhhh…. the system is only for tracking trolls”

    Some people just want to be idiots their whole life.

  19. Yes but there is a more fundamental problem here: it validates the ‘incitement’ theory of speech. Violent images and propaganda DO NOT cause jihadism. Therefore censoring them will have the reverse effect: it will actually *cause* more jihadism. The reason is that people will say “Oh I saw the images on a site xyz and it radicalized me.” Then, Mad Dog Mattis will say, “We must crack down *further* on hate speech.” Then it’s suddenly all pitch forks and waterboards.

    1. It’s funny how the left is sometimes into “root causes” and sometimes not. Poverty, crime, unhappy transsexuals, etc., are “caused by” things like capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy. But Islamic terror? Not caused by Islam! It’s caused by images of islamic terror. Nicely circular.

      1. If you’re trying to say that Trumpkinism is also rooted in Islam, then yes I agree. Though you could also claim the reverse, with some validity.

  20. To start with the obvious response: There’s nothing inherently wrong or inappropriate about the companies working together and censoring violent content or declining to host it on their platforms.

    I had to check that it wasn’t a Robby article.

  21. Top men with best practices!

  22. There’s nothing inherently wrong or inappropriate about the companies working together and censoring violent content or declining to host it on their platforms.

    So there’s nothing wrong with a Politburo as long as private citizens start it?

  23. Remember the last time government asked some companies to do a big IT project?

  24. Seems like a good question is raised by the headline, the answer to which, I suspect, will be NOT LONG.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.