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Counterterrorism forum goes independent

A global task force to fight online extremism announced it will become an independent watchdog organization led by an executive director and a board.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — A global task force set up by some of Silicon Valley's biggest social media companies to fight online extremism announced on Monday it will become an independent watchdog organization led by an executive director and governed by an operating board.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, or GIFCT, said it is "evolving and institutionalizing" from a consortium of member companies into a new structure that is supported by dedicated technology, counterterrorism and operations teams.

The group met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York with government officials led by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and France's President Emmanuel Macron.

Ardern and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the decision to transform GIFCT — created in 2017 by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube — into an independent watchdog for online extremism.

"Today's comprehensive set of actions are designed to ensure we have the organization in place to stop the internet being used as a tool for terror," said Ardern, flanked by Sandberg. “In the same way that we respond to natural emergencies like fires and floods, we need to be prepared and ready to respond to a crisis like the one we experienced."

The new, independent GIFCT will be better equipped to block increasingly sophisticated efforts by terrorists and violent extremists to abuse digital platforms, they said. “We can’t stop because we’re going to have to stay one step ahead, learn from our mistakes, and continue to do all we can over the long-term,” Sandberg said.

GIFCT aims to prevent a repeat of New Zealand's Christchurch terrorist attack in March. The group has been around for two years, but it said in a statement that "the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch and the extraordinary virality of the attacker’s video online illustrated the need to do even more."

"We believe these next steps are best executed within an industry-led framework with deep input from both civil society and governments," GIFCT said.

A 'sea change' in response

In May, Macron and Ardern led a Paris meeting at which a dozen nations and some of the world’s biggest tech companies joined in the push for an international agreement to fight the online efforts of extremist groups.

The proposed global pact is named the Christchurch Call after the New Zealand city where 51 people were killed in an attack on two mosques in March. The attacker broadcast his killings live on Facebook, adding to the public outrage and raising questions about social media regulations.

Since the Christchurch attack, more violence has occurred in which suspects posted hate messages beforehand. In the U.S. shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas in August, the suspect posted a manifesto on message board 8chan, which is not part of GIFCT. Afterward, online services withdrew support for the site.

Ardern said that creating an independent organization out of GIFCT represented “a real sea change to respond to the serious and difficult issue” around extremists streaming attacks online. Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, has said that it is cracking down on its livestream usage. The tech companies also have pledged to combat the spread of extremist content by making improvements on their algorithms and preventing any such content from being live streamed.

GIFCT was set up for the companies to be able to more readily share and remove information about violent terrorist content. Sandberg said Facebook and Instagram have been using some of the information from their platforms to take action against some WhatsApp users.

"We’ve shared more than 200,000 digital fingerprints with our partners, because when terrorists try to use one platform, they try to use all platforms," said Sandberg. “And when one of us finds them, we can take them down off multiple platforms."