Tens of thousands of smaller websites bracing to comply with new anti-extremism measures introduced by the European Union may soon have a new, unexpected ally: Google.
The search giant—often a punching bag for smaller firms accusing them of perceived anti-competitive practices—is reportedly developing free content moderation software to help sites monitor and remove terrorist material. Google’s new tool, first reported on by The Financial Times, comes hot on the heels of a similar initiative from Meta, and is intended to help smaller firms with less resources steer clear of potentially crushing penalties imposed by Europe’s Digital Services Act.
The moderation tool, built via a partnership between Google’s Jigsaw R&D arm and United Nations-backed Tech Against Terrorism, will rely on a database of suspected terrorist content collected by the non-profit Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism formed by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube back in 2017. While Meta recently announced an open source anti-terrorism detection software will help sites match potentially harmful content against that database, The Financial Times report notes Google’s tools will help human moderators take the next step and decide what enforcement measures to put in place with content marked as harmful.
The Digital Service Act, which went into effect last November, codifies previous regulations requiring websites and platforms remove terrorist content within one hour after receiving a removal order or face stiff fines. Though those enforcement measures are meant to positively crack down on extremist content, they also have the potential unintended consequences of disproportionality targeting smaller firms. While Big Tech behemoths like Google and Meta have used their deep pockets and investments in AI to increase their terrorism detection rates, startups and smaller firms often lack those same capabilities.
“There are a lot of websites that just don’t have any people to do the enforcement,” Jigsaw CEO Yasmin Green told The Financial Times. “It is a really labour-intensive thing to even build the algorithms [and] then you need all those human reviewers.”
Tech Against Terrorism Executive Director Adam Hadley echoed that point in a email to Gizmodo.
“In our experience, we find that terrorists seek to exploit smaller platforms where content moderation is challenging due to limited resources,” Hadley said. “Augmenting our existing efforts to alert tech companies, this initiative is designed to help platforms who are inundated by the threat and do not have the capacity to triage thousands of referral requests.”
A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email, “Terrorism is an attack on open societies, and addressing the threat posed by violence and hate is a critical challenge for us all. Jigsaw and Tech Against Terrorism, in collaboration with the the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), are working to develop a new web app that enables small and medium-sized platforms to triage and action on URLs and hashes that exist in counter-terrorism databases.” The spokesperson went on to say, “This coalition of partners will invest in researching ways to support small and medium sized platforms in curbing the spread of violent extremist content.”
Google isn’t necessarily helping out these smaller and medium-sized sites merely out of the goodness of its heart. Though the project isn’t expected to rake in profits in the near term, Green told The Financial Times it’s in Google’s best interest to support a compliant, and terrorism-lite web.
“There’s an understanding that there’s a long-term business return,” Green said. “Google needs a healthier internet.”
News of Google’s tool comes roughly a month after Meta announced it would make its new “Hasher-Matcher-Actioner” (HMA) moderation tool available to a wide range of companies interested in detecting terrorist or extremist content. In that case, the HMA tool uses hashes of known terrorist content to let platforms or sites detect duplicate images or videos and then potentially take enforcement action against them.
Update, 1/4/2022, 11:20 A.M EST: Added statement from Tech Against Terrorism.