In late June, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube announced the formation of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), assisted by Tech against Terrorism (TaT). The official launch took place in San Francisco, at Swissnex, on 1st August.

The event signified the beginning of construction of a formal structuring process, as outlined in the companies’ release, to best identify areas of support for smaller technology companies, and to contribute to the primary objective, to substantially disrupt terrorists’ ability to use the internet, while upholding human rights.

The launch event contained three sessions, followed by a workshop. Representatives from government, non-governmental organisations, and the tech industry, all attended to share information and practices, and to stand united against the growing threat of online exploitation.

The launch was opened by Adam Hadley, Project Director of Tech Against Terrorism. This introduction was followed by UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd who admitted that while the GIFCT was a good start, it is important that this momentum is sustained, with all stakeholders remaining engaged and involved. In her first appearance as Acting US Secretary of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke emphasised the US’ commitment to widening the scope of counter-narratives, and to assert support in assisting tech companies in a meaningful way, stating that the “internet serves as kindling & kerosene to spread terrorism.” Representatives from the Australian and Canadian Governments further emphasised the importance of civil society being included in such discussions, especially regarding the construction of useful counter-narratives, designed to promote resilience and reduce polarisation among certain vulnerable individuals.

The second session focused on online-offline dynamics, the threat from returning foreign fighters, and alternatives to content takedowns. Representatives from the US, UK, AUS, and UNCTED gave their individual threat assessments of terrorist use of the internet. Seamus Hughes, Head of the Program against Extremism at George Washington University, presented his findings, primarily that there had been a shift away from extremist sites and emphasised the importance of personal connections, namely that extremists do ‘connect’ online but predominantly with those they already had a connection to.

In the third (and final) session, presenters focused on the human rights element of online regulation, such as in the removal of content. The discussion opened emphasising the importance in continuing to disrupt terrorists’ use of social media, but balanced alongside protecting the aspects of the internet that are fundamental to values of democracy and freedom. It was agreed that this project could not be exploited by any counter-terrorism debate that instead aimed to censor the internet. While it was agreed that there are currently several active government/civil society initiatives, there still needed to be more open and trusting collaboration between all parties. Currently, there is a lack of transparency for all current approaches, especially on government approaches and content takedown, and this needs to be remedied. This requirement for more trusting collaboration, with greater transparency, is one of several founding principles of the GIFCT and TaT.

The workshop proved equally productive. The technology companies applauded that civil society held such a prominent position in these talks, a rare feat in Silicon Valley. Further, as previously echoed by one of the speakers, it was agreed that best insight for moving forward could be learnt by looking at “things that don’t work”, i.e. “worst practices”.  The technology companies also made clear their interest in being part of the counter-narrative solution.

This launch event in San Francisco was the first hosted in partnership between the GIFCT and Tech Against Terrorism. The Tech Against Team is preparing to host workshops in several cities around the world in the next couple of months. Interested tech companies can register for our NY workshop on 18th September here.