The UK government’s intelligence and security committee has called on parliament to apply pressure on brands in an effort to "force" the removal of terrorist and extremist material by withdrawing ad spend from platforms like YouTube and Facebook.
Pointing to Unilever's pledge to "cut ties" with platforms that create division, the group has urged lawmakers to get brands to take action on platforms that enable such content to be shared – saying the best approach is to withdraw investment as brands did during YouTube's brand safety crisis last year.
Concerns are growing in government over ‘loopholes’ which allowed the perpetrators of five major terror attacks in the UK through 2017 to find ‘safe haven’ online despite repeated appeals for tech giants to close off this oxygen of publicity.
In a report into the matter authors wrote: “… four years ago this committee was the first to draw attention to the failure of Communications Service Providers (CSPs) to stop their systems being used as a safe haven for extremists and terrorists. Yet we have seen that appeals to these companies’ sense of corporate and social responsibility have not resulted in them making the changes required and again these loopholes were used by the perpetrators of the 2017 attacks.
“… we recommend that pressure is instead put on the CSPs by the business community, following the example of companies such as Unilever. We strongly consider that action which affects the CSPs’ profits will hit home harder than an appeal to them to ‘do the right thing’ and could force them to take action on this crucial issue…”
Manchester bomber Salman Abedi was found to have viewed bomb making YouTube clips but the committee heard evidence that neither Google nor competitors such as Facebook and Apple take it upon themselves to actively monitor for illegal material – relying on user feedback instead.
Phil Smith, director general at The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba) reacted to the committee's take by saying that the trade body and its members had already applied "consistent pressure" when it comes to the issue of unacceptable content and the inadvertent support for terrorist propaganda through advertising.
"We all have a role to play in tackling this issue. It is beyond doubt that brands take their responsibilities in this area seriously, with action being taken by some to remove their advertising entirely from some platforms when they feel their concerns are not being addressed. However, action in concert would not be legal and it is up to each advertiser to make their own decisions," he added.
Smith pointed to significant efforts and progress made by the major platforms through a combination of machine learning and human review. YouTube, for instance, recently revealed that 85% of inappropriate videos uploaded to its site were removed by its AI technology.
"The recent proposals from Facebook for an independent content appeals board goes some way towards meeting Isna's calls for an independent oversight body, funded by industry," explained Smith, saying that Isba believed such a body should set principles and codes, certify policies and processes, audit reporting and create a route for recourse. "In essence, a self and co-regulatory system, based on today’s well-proven advertising regulation system in the UK," he continued.
Smith also noted that this isn't just an issue confined to the walls of Google and Facebook.
"It impacts the smaller platform and publishers who reproduce terrorist material masquerading as news content. We are working with the Home Office and Home Secretary as part of his taskforce to address this issue and make the position of brands clear.”