The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT)––a partnership of tech companies led by Facebook, Google, and Twitter––has been praised for its alleged progress in combating extremism online. Most recently, in remarks at a counterterrorism event in Silicon Valley, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen commended the GIFCT, stating that the partnership has “really worked with us to help turn [the] tide” of increased terrorist activity online following the rise of ISIS. Nonetheless, the true substance of the program and extent of its progress remain something of a mystery. While creating the partnership was a step in the right direction, there is still no evidence that the GIFCT has brought about any systematic industry change or triggered any meaningful progress in the fight against the proliferation of extremist content online.
When it was created in June 2017, the GIFCT released a statement discussing its purpose and aims. “The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism…will help us continue to make our hosted consumer services hostile to terrorists and violent extremists,” it begins. The statement––replete with buzzwords and lofty promises to tackle the “ever-evolving” terrorist threat––then goes on to outline its three main areas of focus: developing technological solutions, new research initiatives, and a “broad knowledge-sharing network” that will allow tech companies to better share counter-extremism strategies with each other. The statement mentions a few specific initiatives, such as the Shared Industry Hash Database and counter-narrative programs, but otherwise lacks concrete details.
While it’s understandable that the GIFCT simply would not have had much to share in the beginning, its six-month update in December 2017 barely includes anything more substantial. The update discusses movement on one “technological solution,” the Shared Industry Hash Database––a collection of “digital fingerprints” of extremist content that can be used to identify the same content across platforms. According to the update, the database now contains more than 40,000 hashes, and access has been shared with several new companies, including Ask.fm, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snap. This is presumably an improvement, but the GIFCT does not even note whether the database has proved useful, let alone provide any concrete measure of its ability to reduce the amount extremist material easily found on the Internet. For example, how much extremist content has actually been identified, removed, and blocked with those 40,000 hashes? Is there agreement that all content represented in the database will be removed across all industry platforms? Hopefully, tech companies are not simply adding hashes to a database that is rarely being used to identify and remove content––though it is impossible to know for certain.
The GIFCT provides no update at all on its second “key” focus area––research––but does extensively discuss improvements in collaboration and knowledge-sharing. According to the update, the GIFCT has provided a “more formal structure” for its knowledge-sharing network, shared “best practices” with 68 smaller tech companies, and hosted and attended several workshops and meetings. Though these are surely valuable endeavors, it is difficult to applaud the sharing of these so-called “best-practices” when the GIFCT provides no detail as to what they actually are, or what role they play in the permanent removal of extremist content from the Internet.
Tech companies have made some progress in the fight to tackle terrorism online––YouTube’s November 2017 decision to remove the sermons and lectures of the notorious al-Qaeda operative and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki from its platform, for example, was a major step in the right direction. Such an initiative should surely be adopted by many other platforms and discussed by the GIFCT. It is therefore baffling that the GIFCT has seemingly done little more than publish buzzword-saturated press releases with few specific details. If the GIFCT has indeed helped to “turn the tide” of terrorist activity on the Internet, it should be able to be more explicit, transparent, and definitive about its progress.