Despite raking in vast revenues that eclipse the GDP of many countries across the globe, tech giants such as Google and Facebook seem incredibly reluctant to invest money into meaningful initiatives aimed at ridding their networks of extremist and criminal content. While law enforcement authorities the world over focus their efforts on disrupting the activities of criminals operating on the dark web; terrorists, human traffickers, paedophiles and drug dealers are openly using social media platforms and other publically-accessible internet services to radicalise new recruits, target victims and sell illegal goods and services. But as banks and other financial institutions go to great lengths to crack down on cyber fraud, internet firms including YouTube and Instagram are doing little to cleanse their networks of organised criminals and extremists, often arguing that they are neutral conduits of information that should not be subject to the same oversight and regulation as traditional publishers.
Daesh, along with other Islamist extremist groups, owes much of its success to its exploitation of social media, and its use of encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to spread propaganda and organise terrorist attacks. While it is true that a coalition of tech firms promised at the end of last year to work together to rid their platforms of extremist content, little progress appears to have been made over the intervening months. In February, an investigation by the Times of London revealed that big brand advertisers were helping to fund extremists after the companies’ adverts appeared before YouTube videos created by Islamists and right-wing ideologues. The Google-owned video sharing platform responded months later by launching an experimental service that redirected searches for extremist material to videos that denounce jihadi ideology, but has been accused of exerting much more energy on silencing conservative voices than removing content that could encourage viewers to commit terrorist attacks or hate crimes.
Facebook appears to be the tech-savvy people smuggler’s social media platform of choice. For some years now, trafficking gangs have used the social network to recruit customers, sell forged travel documents and blackmail family members of migrants who have been unable to pay the money they demand. In December 2014, Frontex warned that smugglers were using Facebook and other social media platforms to help them turn the mass movement of people from the Middle East and Africa into a multi-billion euro business. Years later, it appeared Facebook had done little to stop its platform being used in this manner. At the beginning of August, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge revealed that people smugglers were still using Facebook to advertise their services. While it may be the case that much of the information the traffickers post is not in English, it beggars belief that nearly three years on from Frontex’s warning, people smugglers are still able to use Facebook to recruit customers. Separately, the Times last month reported that trafficking gangs were using Facebook to broadcast videos of migrants being tortured, before demanding ransoms from their victims’ relatives. The revelations prompted the International Organisation for Migration to question the company’s efforts to prevent smugglers from using its network.
Along with terrorists and human trafficking gangs, drug dealers and child abusers are routinely using internet companies’ services to facilitate their crimes. A recent BBC investigation revealed that school children as young as 15 are using social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to sell drugs including cocaine and methamphetamine. In October last year, it was widely reported that Facebook mobile app Marketplace was being used to sell drugs and sexual services. Meanwhile, paedophiles regularly use social media platforms to either swap indecent images of children, or groom victims for abuse.
In many cases, internet firms actually profit from the activities of criminals and extremists operating on their networks, albeit indirectly through advertising, making it all the more disgraceful that they appear to be either unwilling to act against illegal content or behaviour on their networks. It would of course be ridiculous to suggest that the internet is responsible for terrorism, human trafficking, paedophilia or drug dealing, but there can be no doubt that tech giants are facilitating the illegal activities of criminals operating on their platforms. Considering their huge profits and the extraordinary technological advances they make with every passing month, it would be preposterous to suggest that cracking down on criminal activity on their networks is beyond the ability of internet giants such as Google and Facebook.
While the EU has proposed plans to force social media firms to remove extremist content from their networks, governments around the world appear extremely reluctant to tackle the issue of internet platforms being used to host illicit material or facilitate illegal activities. The tech giants have now been given years to get their house in order, but have repeatedly failed to so, as evidenced by the fact that Facebook is still hosting people smugglers’ adverts nearly three years after Frontex called it out for doing so. The time has come for the law to force these companies to stop acting as friends to terrorists and criminals.