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Google, Facebook and other tech powers enabling automated blocking of extremist content

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Some of the web’s biggest destinations for watching videos have quietly started using automation to remove extremist content from their sites, according to two people familiar with the process.

The move is a major step forward for internet companies that are eager to eradicate violent propaganda from their sites and are under pressure to do so from governments around the world as attacks by extremists proliferate, from Syria to Belgium and the United States.

YouTube and Facebook are among the sites deploying systems to block or rapidly take down Islamic State videos and other similar material, the sources said.

The technology was originally developed to identify and remove copyright-protected content on video sites. It looks for “hashes,” a type of unique digital fingerprint that internet companies automatically assign to specific videos, allowing all content with matching fingerprints to be removed rapidly.

Such a system would catch attempts to repost content already identified as unacceptable, but would not automatically block videos that have not been seen before.

The companies would not confirm that they are using the method or talk about how it might be employed, but 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.

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The two sources would not discuss how much human work goes into reviewing videos identified as matches or near-matches by the technology. They also would not say how videos in the databases were initially identified as extremist.

Use of the new technology is likely to be refined over time as internet companies continue to discuss the issue internally and with competitors and other interested parties.

In late April, amid pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama and other U.S. and European leaders concerned about online radicalization, internet companies including Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, Twitter Inc, Facebook Inc and CloudFlare held a call to discuss options, including a content-blocking system put forward by the private Counter Extremism Project, according to one person on the call and three who were briefed on what was discussed.

The discussions underscored the central but difficult role some of the world’s most influential companies now play in addressing issues such as terrorism, free speech and the lines between government and corporate authority.

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None of the companies at this point has embraced the anti-extremist group’s system, and they have typically been wary of outside intervention in how their sites should be policed.

“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.

Extremist content exists on a spectrum, Hughes said, and different web companies draw the line in different places.

Most have relied until now mainly on users to flag content that violates their terms of service, and many still do. Flagged material is then individually reviewed by human editors who delete postings found to be in violation.

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The companies now using automation are not publicly discussing it, two sources said, in part out of concern that terrorists might learn how to manipulate their systems or that repressive regimes might insist the technology be used to censor opponents.

“There’s no upside in these companies talking about it,” said Matthew Prince, chief executive of content distribution company CloudFlare. “Why would they brag about censorship?”

The two people familiar with the still-evolving industry practice confirmed it to Reuters after the Counter Extremism Project publicly described its content-blocking system for the first time last week and urged the big internet companies to adopt it.

WARY OF OUTSIDE SOLUTION

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The April call was led by Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, sources with knowledge of the call said. On it, Facebook presented options for discussion, according to one participant, including the one proposed by the non-profit Counter Extremism Project.

The anti-extremism group was founded by, among others, Frances Townsend, who advised former president George W. Bush on homeland security, and Mark Wallace, who was deputy campaign manager for the Bush 2004 re-election campaign.

Three sources with knowledge of the April call said that companies expressed wariness of letting an outside group decide what defined unacceptable content.

Other alternatives raised on the call included establishing a new industry-controlled nonprofit or expanding an existing industry-controlled nonprofit. All the options discussed involved hashing technology.

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The model for an industry-funded organization might be the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which identifies known child pornography images using a system known as PhotoDNA. The system is licensed for free by Microsoft Corp.

Microsoft announced in May it was providing funding and technical support to Dartmouth College computer scientist Hany Farid, who works with the Counter Extremism Project and helped develop PhotoDNA, “to develop a technology to help stakeholders identify copies of patently terrorist content.”

Facebook’s Bickert agreed with some of the concerns voiced during the call about the Counter Extremism Project’s proposal, two people familiar with the events said. She declined to comment publicly on the call or on Facebook’s efforts, except to note in a statement that Facebook is “exploring with others in industry ways we can collaboratively work to remove content that violates our policies against terrorism.”

In recent weeks, one source said, Facebook has sent out a survey to other companies soliciting their opinions on different options for industry collaboration on the issue.

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William Fitzgerald, a spokesman for Alphabet’s Google unit, which owns YouTube, also declined to comment on the call or about the company’s automated efforts to police content.

A Twitter spokesman said the company was still evaluating the Counter Extremism Project’s proposal and had “not yet taken a position.”

A former Google employee said people there had long debated what else besides thwarting copyright violations or sharing revenue with creators the company should do with its Content ID system. Google’s system for content-matching is older and far more sophisticated than Facebook’s, according to people familiar with both.

Lisa Monaco, senior adviser to the U.S. president on counterterrorism, said in a statement that the White House welcomed initiatives that seek to help companies “better respond to the threat posed by terrorists’ activities online.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco and Dustin Volz in Washington; Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Jim Finkle; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Bill Rigby)

Report typos and corrections to [email protected].
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Sailing among the stars: Here’s how photons could revolutionize space flight

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A few days from now, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will lift off from Florida, carrying a satellite the size of a loaf of bread with nothing to power it but a huge polyester "solar sail."

It's been the stuff of scientists' dreams for decades but has only very recently become a reality.

The idea might sounds crazy: propelling a craft through the vacuum of space with no engine, no fuel, and no solar panels, but instead harnessing the momentum of packets of light energy known as photons -- in this case from our Sun.

The spacecraft to be launched on Monday, called LightSail 2, was developed by the Planetary Society, a US organization that promotes space exploration which was co-founded by the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan in 1980.

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Russians to prod Putin on poverty and his personal life as his ratings tank

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Russians are set to ask President Vladimir Putin about growing poverty at home and tensions abroad during an annual televised phone-in Thursday, which comes following a fall in his approval ratings.

The leader is also likely to face a degree of grilling on his personal life, according to questions submitted by the public online ahead of the live show.

Set to be held for the 17th time since Putin came to power in 1999, the show starts at 0900 GMT and usually lasts several hours.

Ahead of the carefully choreographed show, more than one million questions had been submitted, organisers told Russian news agencies.

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Trump could turn on Hope Hicks just like Michael Cohen: Trump family biographer warns

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Trump family biographer Emily Jane Fox explained that she didn't think that the president would turn on long-time aide Hope Hicks, but then again, it was the same thought about Michael Cohen as well.

In a panel discussion about Hicks' testimony during MSNBC's Brian Williams' Wednesday show, Fox recalled that Micahel Cohen once said that he would take a bullet for the president. Once it appeared that Trump would throw him under the bus, Cohen began looking for a way out.

The same scenario seems to be happening with Hicks now.

"She works at new Fox, which is a company run by a Murdoch son," Fox said. "It's a company that's brand new. She's the head of communications there. And there are shareholders who would take issue with the fact that a senior member of this company is being put in this situation and being thrust on the world stage."

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