Garda internet unit would help companies, says EU counter-terrorism boss

Gilles de Kerchove.

A dedicated Garda internet unit would allow it to refer greater volumes of takedown requests to companies concerning online terrorist material, according to the EU’s counter-terrorism chief.

Gilles de Kerchove said such units need to be staffed with specially trained experts in order to be able to convince internet companies to remove content they believe to be illegal.

In a wide-ranging address in Dublin, the EU’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator said:

  • Police and security services require speedy access to digital evidence — much of it stored in the US and a lot in Ireland – with many requests taking a year;
  • European agencies and governments need to ask themselves ‘where did we go wrong’ given that the threat of terrorism has not decreased;
  • Being a radical is not a crime and the more difficult task for agencies is to identify the “tipping point” between radicalisation and planning acts of violence;
  • Jihadist returnees from Syria and Iraq could use drones, with chemical agents, attached, and fly them over the likes of football stadiums;
  • The rise of the far right is a concern for some member states and there is a risk of such groups and jihadists “feeding off” of each other;
  • The expansion of radical forms of Salafism (a branch of Islam) is a concern in some member states and in north Africa

Mr de Kerchove’s address, at the Institute of International and European Affairs, was attended by acting Garda commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin, assistant commissioner of security and intelligence Michael O’Sullivan, Defence Forces’ assistant chief of staff Brigadier General Peter O’Hanlon; and Department of Justice acting secretary general Oonagh McPhillips, as well as embassy representatives.

Speaking to the media after his address, the counter-terror chief said internet companies voluntarily agree to remove material that is flagged to them by agencies.

He said crucial to this is having the expertise to establish if the content is unlawful, meaning not consistent with terms of conditions of usage as defined by them, not by governments.

“Flagging to internet companies what we believe to be unlawful, we believe having people trained to distinguish between unlawful and distasteful content is much more effective,” said Mr de Kerchove.

He said when Europol’s Internet Referral Unit was set up, Google said 93% of content referred to it by Scotland Yard IRU was taken down, but only 33% of referrals from other people was.

“Why the difference? Because Scotland Yard unit is composed of well-trained people who can distinguish between unlawful and distasteful — we have to accept distasteful.

"They [the companies] need to trust the flagging mechanism and the more member states that have that they more you flag to companies — it’s just a question of volume.”

Mr de Kerchove referred to the “digitisation of security” and that most information wanted by security services and police is connected to the internet and the private sector.

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