amber rudd

Home Office hails government-backed algorithm that blocks terrorist propaganda

Home Secretary branded 'enemy of free speech' by deputy research director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, but ex-government lawyer praises 'technological and moral' lead shown by Whitehall

The UK Home Office has welcomed the development of a government-backed algorithm that ministers say can successfully detect new terrorist propaganda videos with a high degree of accuracy, thereby stopping them from ever appearing online to be shared.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, said the new identification and blocking bot had been finessed by analytics firm ASI Data Science at the request of the government and thanks to £600,000 in Home Office funding.

The development appears to chime with calls from European Union legislators for video-sharing platforms to be compelled to take “appropriate” measures to expunge terrorist content from channels – but web libertarians have hit out at what they see as a retrograde and censorious step.

The artificial intelligence-type computer program was “trained” using 1,000 of the slick propaganda videos shot by Islamic State. It is able to distinguish these videos – some of which include footage of barbaric executions – from the likes of news footage of terrorist fanatics wielding machine guns.

The aim is for the tool to be deployed by the web’s smaller players, for example content platform and file-sharing service pCloud, though no companies are yet known to have signed up to use it. In some borderline cases, the algorithm refers a video to a human for their consideration before a decision is taken about whether or not it should be blocked.

The move is yet another sign of the UK government’s mounting frustration with big tech firms, which many high-profile politicians regard as having been insufficiently proactive in removing vile, violent content from their platforms.

Marion Oswald, a cyberlaw expert who worked in government before moving into academic life, told E&T: “This seems like an example of the government taking the initiative and saying to tech firms: ‘If the government can do this, why can’t you?’ They’ve sort of taken the lead, technologically and morally.”

On a visit to California for talks with major internet companies and the US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Rudd said she has not ruled out trying to bring in new legislation to force all internet platforms to deploy the government-approved detection bot to stop the spread of videos like those showing children executing Western captives in the battlefields of Syria.

Richard Wellings, deputy research director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said this made Rudd an “enemy of free speech”.

Other web libertarians also heaped scorn on the Home Secretary on Twitter, accusing her of technological ignorance.

Critics say blocking Islamic State propaganda will merely lead to it being pushed underground – but ASI data scientist Dr Marc Warner said such a development should be regarded as a good thing.

“What we are trying to do is try and remove this content from the public web,” Warner told the BBC. “If it requires somebody to have 10 passwords and an incredibly complicated Tor browser before they can get access to content, we see that as a win.

“It means that it cannot just be shared between friends on their mobile phones and just accessed with an internet browser.

“We see this as an incredibly positive feature if it [terrorist content] gets pushed into more and more inaccessible places.”

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