TORONTO—Canada and its G7 partners have warned the world’s biggest internet companies to do a better job of deleting “vile” material from their platforms and dangled the threat of forcing them if they fall short.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he and his fellow G7 security ministers delivered that message in their April 24 meeting with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft: do more to prevent their platforms from being exploited by terrorists, sexual predators, human traffickers, and purveyors of fake news.
“The message is: let’s pick up the pace on the improvement that we need to see to get rid of this vile material,” Goodale said.
“And if we don’t see the pace improving fast enough, then we reserve the right to take other action. And I think the companies heard that message loud and clear.”
The G7 security ministers’ meeting in Toronto focused on addressing violent extremism and preventing the internet from being used as a tool for training, propaganda, and financing. But it was also overshadowed by the deadly van attack on April 23, in which a rental van barrelled through a crowd of people on a north Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 pedestrians and injuring 15.
The internet giants addressed the G7 ministers last fall in Italy, but the ministers wanted to hear from them again to measure their progress.
Facebook, said Goodale, reported that in the first quarter this year it took action on 1.9 million pieces of content from the Islamic State and Al-Qaida—twice as much as in the quarter before that.
The G7’s response was “thank you very much,” Goodale said.
“Some progress is being reported. We need to see more,” he added. “We’re all in this together. It’s not a case of us against them.”
Goodale stopped short of saying what action the governments might take, but the meeting’s German participant offered a glimpse.
The German government has taken a hard line against internet providers and what they can disseminate through a network enforcement law that is not popular in some quarters, said Gunter Krings, the parliamentary state secretary for Germany’s interior ministry.
“Certainly, the companies didn’t like it so much. But it’s also clear that the standards of what can be communicated on the internet can’t be set by the terms and conditions of private contracts,” Krings said in an interview.
“These standards have to be set by democratically elected lawmakers, who decide on what is libel, what is defamation, and how far can you go in even an open society.”
Goodale said cybertechnology has become “a disruptive force” with the potential to harm critical infrastructure “and the power to more easily conceal identities.”
Internet companies not only need to work faster to remove offensive material, they need to play a broader role in disseminating “counter-narratives” including to those searching terrorist-related material, he said.
Companies and governments also need to do more to improve the level of digital literacy among citizens “so that people can be more proactive themselves in identifying fake news, for example, and dubious sources of information.”
The ministers also discussed how to guard against ongoing domestic threats, as the Toronto attack gave new urgency to a discussion of fortifying so-called soft targets.
Goodale pointed to the dump trucks and cement barricades that were erected near Toronto’s Union Station and Air Canada Centre following the attack.
Though nothing has emerged so far to link the events in Toronto to extremism, the use of a vehicle as a weapon against pedestrians is something that Goodale’s British, French, American, and German counterparts are all too familiar with.
“The discussions yesterday afternoon and this morning were overshadowed, of course by the terrible tragic incident here in Toronto,” said Krings.
Krings said the Toronto attack was similar to one in the German city of Munster three weeks ago that killed two people and wounded dozens more.
“The fear was that it’s a terror attack, but it also turned out to be a mentally ill person,” Krings said, stressing that he didn’t want to leap to any conclusions about the Toronto attack.
Krings said the incidents show that countries face serious security threats and not just from terrorism. He and several other ministers around the table never lost sight of a key point: “We might be, on a professional level, relieved that there’s no nexus, connection to a national security terrorist question. For the people that die, for their family, for the injured people, it really doesn’t matter.”
From The Canadian Press