Another day, another acronym – but GIFCT is one that anyone interested in Big Tech, combating the rise of online extremism or internet censorship should unpack.

On its website The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism describes itself as an organisation that brings together “the technology industry, government, civil society, and academia to foster collaboration and information-sharing to counter terrorist and violent extremist activity online.”

Essentially it’s a cross-platform takedown facility run and funded by the Big Tech behemoths we know and love – with the full support of many governments, or as one critic has put it a “corporate-backed NGO”.

It was launched in 2017 by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube after terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. 

GIFCT spearheaded a secure industry database that gave extremist images and videos hashes – essentially a number that allows GIFCT members to quickly share the hash between themselves.

That means that if an extremist video was identified on Facebook it could immediately warn other platforms; they are then able to determine if the content breaches their terms and conditions and take it down if it does – all without sharing any user data between companies.

Fourteen companies can access the GIFCT database, including Reddit, Snap, Instagram, Verizon Media, Microsoft’s LinkedIn and file-sharing service Dropbox.

As a result of 2019’s mosque attacks and its live-streaming on social media, New Zealand has been a prime mover in the GIFCT’s formation and is part of its Independent Advisory Committee.

In 2019 Prime Minister Ardern’s and French President Macron’s Christchurch Call led to an overhaul of the organisation – the tech companies agreeing to broaden the GIFCT’s scope and give it a dedicated structure and staff. 

Ardern spoke of how the relaunched GIFCT promised to be more inclusive and transparent, with “civil society” at the heart of its work. 

Indeed the GIFCT has become the primary vehicle for implementing the pledge and Ardern its most visible supporter.

And finally we’re beginning to see some of that expanded framework come into play.

Until recently GIFCT’s database has focused on videos and images from Islamist extremist organisations and terrorist groups on a United Nations list.

But, in an interview with Reuters this week, GIFCT’s Executive Director Nicholas Rasmussen signalled it was broadening its scope in light of the Capitol attack in January and the rise of far right extremism.

According to The Verge the GIFCT will begin hashing content that is not user generated but is hosted on third-party platforms. That might be PDFs of terrorist, terrorist publications that use specific branding and logos, and URLs that are often shared on social networks.

Walled Garden

At present the GIFCT has over 320,000 visually distinct hashes and 49,000 URLs in its database. 

Erin Saltman, GIFCT’s director of programming told Protocol that these days extremist content was more likely to be shared by a URL rather than on Facebook or Twitter.

“You do not inherently know what that URL links to. A lot of moderation teams are told to avoid click-throughs, because you don’t know if malware is attached, and you don’t have the time and scale to monitor third-party platforms. So by hashing URLs, we’re giving them a wider net. That’s a big deal, especially for the less-social media sites, or even things like comments.”

But some are concerned that the GIFCT has the potential to limit free speech and censure, perhaps unwittingly, non-extremist content as its hashing database multiplies. 

Journalist Courtney C. Radsch is one. 

She writes at justsecurity that the centralised approach exemplified by the GIFCT could have “profound repercussions on the future of an open, interoperable, and free internet.” 

“No longer is internet freedom and an uncensored internet the guiding principle of internet governance or of the values embodied by Western governments that traditionally promoted them. Rather, GIFCT envisions a walled garden of private platforms that share the same politics and set the terms for competition. Small companies could be compelled to join or comply with the GIFCT, while companies could be “voluntold” by governments which types of content to hash.”

Those sorts of concerns get little airplay, the media more attuned to the less complex “Big Tech takes action on terrorists” angle, but as the GIFCT’s reach extends those voices are growing.

Obviously taking down a video of a mass killing, or an inciting hate speech, is a good thing but as the hashing power and the perceived legitimacy of the GIFCT increases free speech advocates warn that other, non-objectionable content, like journalists reporting on terrorism, satire or legitimate documentation of human rights abuses might also end up in its takedown database.

Trust us

As it is the GIFCT set the rules without accountability – outsiders have no idea how its moderation process works. How does one piece of content meet its definition of extremism and get taken down, and another doesn’t?

Additionally because many smaller platforms don’t invest in more than cursory moderation and take the GIFCT’s hash list at face value the power of the organisation cuts right across the internet – if it’s on the list it’s bad, no questions asked.

At present the GIFCT works with the 32 governments – including NZ – that make up the freedomonlinecoalition but human rights groups aren’t convinced that governments with little respect for human rights like freedom of expression won’t one day gain access.

Could a government, for example, have some influence on the GIFCT – and, for whatever reason, insist that a hash be added to its database?

The dangers are abstract at the moment but questions like these need to be asked.

Indeed the PR pivot has been a fascinating one to watch – Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and the like presenting themselves as the saviour for a problem they were a party to in the first place through their lax moderation efforts.

Are we better off at the moment because of the GIFCT? 

Absolutely – when a neo-nazi gunman killed two people outside a synagogue in Germany in 2019 and live streamed it on Amazon’s Twitch – the GIFCT takedown process worked as designed, preventing the video from being shared widely.

But we should also be aware of the potential dangers of vesting such power in a pretty opaque coalition of some of the world’s biggest companies.

The GIFCT entrenches the power of those Silicon Valley giants, and, yes, that might be a power for good now, but it also lays the foundation for an entity that effectively polices the internet; putting such wide-ranging censorial power in the hands of Big Tech might one day come back to haunt us.