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Internet giants may be quietly automating the removal of extremist content

As the debate around free speech and censorship intensifies online, a number of the biggest players in the digital space have already started making moves, albeit quietly and under the radar. According to a new report from Reuters and its anonymous sources, YouTube, Facebook, and other internet giants have started automating the process of taking down extremist content. The move comes as a huge victory for various activist groups and governments who have urged web-based companies to aid in the fight against terrorism, as many extremist organizations have used social media and the web as a key tool in recruiting, communicating, and spreading propaganda.

The move comes just a month after Facebook, Twitter, Google-owned YouTube, and Microsoft agreed to uphold new hate speech rules put forth by the European Union, and now, it looks as though some of these folks are taking things yet another step further. By employing an automated technology that looks for “hashes,” a unique digital identifier that internet firms automatically attach to certain videos, companies can efficiently remove problematic content from the web. Moreover, it saves humans from having to watch what could otherwise be upsetting material over and over again.

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The companies who are allegedly using this automated technology have not yet confirmed their methods, but according to Reuters, “numerous people familiar with the technology said that posted videos could be checked against a database of banned content to identify new postings of, say, a beheading or a lecture inciting violence.”

Still, the use of automation and even the removal of such content continues to be a contentious issue, especially as tech companies consider who should be the final arbiter of what constitutes free speech, and what should be taken down. “It’s a little bit different than copyright or child pornography, where things are very clearly illegal,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. And as Matthew Prince, chief executive of content distribution company CloudFlare, pointed out, “There’s no upside in these companies talking about it. Why would they brag about censorship?”