German Police launches „National Internet Referral Unit“

Europol has requested the removal of Internet content in almost 100,000 cases. The companies adressed are responding to a considerable extent. The German BKA has now also set up a contact office, which has sent almost 6,000 reports since its short existence and cooperates closely with Europol, also about „smuggling crime“.

The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) maintains a registration office for the removal of Internet content. The „National Internet Referral Unit“ has been in operation since October last year. Since then, the BKA has already sent 5,895 reports on suspected criminal content to Internet companies. That writes the Federal Ministry of the Interior in the answer to a set of parlamentarian questions.

With the new department the German Government precedes the EU regulation for preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online. The legislative proposal was presented by the EU Commission last September, and after only a few months and thus at a rush, the EU Parliament agreed on its position last week. The aim is to adopt the regulation as quickly as possible after the election of the new EU-parliament.

A central component of the proposed regulation are very short deadlines within which Internet companies must remove content. In addition, the Commission demands upload filters for already known „terrorist“ material as well as „proactive measures“ from platform operators in order to detect such content independently in advance.

84% of requests are complied with

The German „National Internet Referral Unit“ is part of a European network in which each EU Member State must designate a contact point in accordance with the Regulation. Europol, which has also operated such an office in The Hague since 2015, acts as the headquarters. Since its foundation three years ago, Europol’s Internet Referral Unit has sent 96,166 reports to the Internet companies. In 84% of the cases, the content or accounts subsequently went offline.

Europol stores all links, regardless of whether they are removed or not, in a separate file called „Internet Referral Management Application“ (IRMa). With this application, the police and secret services want to recognize which referrals have already been sent to Internet service providers for removal, so that a second report by another authority is no longer necessary. The BKA has also been connected to IRMa since 1 January. Audio, video and text files to be removed are stored in a separate file „Check the Web“ for later investigations.

After a referral to the companies, the deletion process is transferred to IRMa. The application then „regularly checks automatically“ whether the contents can still be retrieved. A court order is not intended for the procedure. The Ministry of the Interior confirms this and writes that the reports are „based exclusively on the legal assessment of the BKA“. Initially, IRMa only wrote to large providers, but in the meantime this list has grown to 212 companies.

Internet Archive received mail from IRMa

The case of the Internet Archive two weeks ago has shown where it can lead if an assessment of potentially criminal content is left to the police and not to the judiciary. Via the IRMa, the operators of the huge web archive received a list of addresses with alleged „terrorist propaganda“. Although the corresponding EU regulation has not yet been negotiated and is therefore not valid, the ordering authority is said to have set a deletion deadline of one hour.

Behind the report to the Internet Archive was the French Department of Cybercrime. It is disturbing which contributions are classified as „terrorist“ there. According to the web archive, these include book archives with millions of texts published in the public domain. For at least 550 of the URLs, the creators state on their blog that these can by no means be regarded as „terrorist“.

In case that the request is not complied with, the French Reporting Office is said to have threatened the web archive with blocking the pages in question. When asked, Europol therefore attached importance to the fact that these reports had been sent via IRMa from the Europol domain, but without its own involvement. All national offices are required to make it clear that Europol is not responsible for national reporting via IRMa.

Companies should search for allegedly „illegal“ contents themselves

However, the forthcoming regulation also prescribes „proactive measures“, the use of which can be made mandatory. This will force Internet companies to „identify, investigate and, if necessary, remove“ alleged „illegal“ content without the intervention of Europol or the national hotlines. The German Ministry of the Interior supports this demand and continues to write that companies could „use commercially available tools as well as their own developments“. Under the motto „crawling, monitoring and gathering“, the EU Commission is funding research into such a search engine for criminal Internet content.

Europol is investigating „human smuggling“ as well. Soon after the establishment of the Referral Unit in The Hague, its remit was therefore extended to the fight against unwanted migration to Europe. The German Government only has figures on referrals for 2016 and 2017, and a sharp increase can already be seen in these two years. Last week, the Ministry of the Interior confirmed for the first time that the BKA also participates in the mechanism against „smuggling crime“.

Image: In the future, Internet companies will have to search their platforms for supposedly criminal content themselves. The EU Commission is funding research into such applications (all rights reserved RED ALERT).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.