Google's extremism apology came after UK pressure – minister

Government ‘read the riot act’ to the firm, which must do more to tackle far-right videos on YouTube

Google’s public apology over placing advertising next to extremist material came only after it was “read the riot act” at a Whitehall summit last Friday, it has emerged.

The company’s bosses are expected to meet Cabinet Office ministers again this week, setting out further action to strengthen their advertising policies and ensure government ads do not appear next to YouTube videos featuring US white supremacists or banned Islamist hate preachers.

Government advertising remains suspended from the social media platform while an action plan and timetable are agreed to deal with the problem.

The Home Office minister told the Commons home affairs select committee on Tuesday that the government ruled nothing out, including legislation. Sarah Newton said ministers would very carefully study the German draft law proposing fines for hate speech of up to €50m (£43m) on social media companies.

But Yvette Cooper, the committee chairman, made clear that though Google had apologised, they had still not made a commitment to proactively search their content for material from terrorist or illegal organisations.

Cooper told the committee about a recruitment video posted by National Action, a far-right group banned in Britain, that was still live on YouTube despite the MPs’ complaints last week over similar content.

Cooper also raised with ministers the question of whether Google was aiding and abetting a banned organisation if it continued to host their content. The solicitor general, Robert Buckland, agreed that a criminal offence of “recklessly disseminating this material” did exist in law.

Newton told MPs that the example of the National Action video still on YouTube showed that Google was not yet doing what it had promised.

She disclosed that the social media giant “had been read the riot act at a Downing Street meeting” and had been told to construct an action plan and a timetable to ensure such material was taken down within 24 hours.

Newton said ministers social media companies to tackle online hate crime and potential terrorism with the same vigour and tools they use to tackle child sexual abuse online, including disruption and the use of “counter-narratives”.

But MPs on the committee said this did not go far enough and that they wanted proactive searching for terrorist and banned material. They asked whether it was time to consider the German approach of fining social media companies which hosted hate crime material. The minister promised nothing would be ruled out: “We will be looking very carefully at the German draft legislation,” she said.

Later, Cooper said the government’s response was insufficient. “Ministers need to tell us what action they plan to take. It should not be beyond the wit of Google to use one of their much-feted search engines or algorithms to remove this illegal material.”

Twitter said on Tuesday it had suspended more than 375,000 accounts for violations linked to the promotion of terrorism during the last six months of 2016. It said in its latest transparency report that 636,000 accounts had been suspended since August 2015 for links to extremism. The majority had been shut as a result of the firm’s spam account-scanning technology.

Earlier the committee heard evidence from the parliamentary authorities that social media companies were not reacting quickly or “sensibly” enough to reports of the online abuse of MPs.

Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons deputy speaker, revealed that an “embedded team” to monitor social media comments about MPs was being put in place to advise them when they were being targeted for online attack.

He said MPs, particularly minority ethnic women, were increasingly being targeted for online abuse. MPs who spoke in emotive debates on issues such as badger culling or abortion often received threats, even death threats, Hoyle said, and warned that such behaviour was in danger of undermining democracy.

Hoyle said if common sense did not prevail and social media companies failed to recognise their corporate responsibility, legislation might be needed.

“It’s about drawing the line in the right place, not what they believe is the right place, so … if we have to put legislation through the House, so be it,” he said.


Alan Travis Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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