Referral Unit at Europol: German police had thousands of internet contents removed last year

Currently, hosting providers can decide whether to voluntarily comply with removal requests in the area of „Islamist terrorism“ from Europol. From 7 June, these will become removal orders, which can be sent directly to companies by national authorities via a new platform.

With the Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU), Europol operates since 2015 a platform for tracking postings that police authorities classify as „terrorist“ or „violent extremist“. It is part of Europol’s Counter-Terrorism Centre in The Hague. So far, the reports from the EU IRU are so-called referrals, i.e. requests for deletion, which are passed on to the corresponding hosting providers.

The companies decide for themselves whether to comply with the objectionable content, but in the past it was removed immediately in most cases. In addition to providers such as Google, Meta or Apple, Telegram also cooperates with Europol and has participated in joint „action days“ on the internet since 2019, for example.

14,450 reports from Germany

The EU member states have each set up their own Internet Referral Units for cooperation with Europol; in Germany, this is located at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). In response to a written question by the Bundestag member Alexander Ulrich, the Federal Ministry of the Interior has now provided current figures.

According to this, the IRU at the BKA sent reports on 14,450 „links with jihadist propaganda“ to Europol last year. The answer leaves open whether per link also one message is generated. In 2019 the BKA had reported 7,832 links for removal.

The police agency then reported the links transmitted from Germany to the respective providers via the „Internet Referral Management Application“ (IRMA). With the tool, Europol wants to detect multiple reports from different countries and prevent duplicate notifications to the providers. Police and intelligence services can also use IRMA to request that content on certain websites be kept online in order to monitor them.

IRMA becomes PERCI

With the EU Regulation on addressing the dissemination of terrorist content online (TCO), which came into force on 7 June 2021, the deletion requests will become removal orders, which providers must comply with within one hour. The regulation is currently – as the name suggests – limited to terrorism.

As is usual with EU legislations, the member states must implement them within a set period of time. The TCO Regulation enters into force on 7 June, by which time the national hotlines must be connected to the new reporting system.

With the implementation of the regulation, Europol is shutting down the existing IRMA platform and replacing it with the PERCI application, which can be accessed directly by national law enforcement agencies. In addition to removal orders in a standardised format, „referrals“ for other crimes than „terrorism“ will also be distributed through it as usual.

Voluntary reporting of „proactively deleted content“

PERCI is scheduled to be finally operational in May 2022. Hosting providers will then have to note when and to what extent they have complied with removal orders. Law enforcement authorities will be able to track this in real time. The application will also be used for „voluntary reporting of proactively deleted content“ by companies. The authorities can then use these tips for investigations.

PERCI is also a comparison file to „voluntary report proactively deleted content“. According to a planning document, the police agency wants to use it primarily to protect „start up and smaller companies“ from „terrorist abuse“ of their platforms.

However, it is not known by which procedure the companies can make corresponding queries and whether PERCI is also a hash value file, as operated by the Global Internet Forum for Counter-Terrorism for the implementation of upload filters in the TCO Regulation. Images, videos or text files are not stored in PERCI, Europol puts these in their specially created „Check The Web“ database.

Slow prosecution of right-wing extremism

For several years, Europol has also been tracking the phenomenon of „illegal migration“. In 2020, it investigated 2,518 pieces of content „used by traffickers to offer smuggling services to migrants and refugees“, writes the agency in its annual report. The European Centre for Migrant Smuggling at Europol is responsible for investigating and prosecuting them; providers continue to decide voluntarily on removal following a referral sent by Europol.

The EU IRU has been slow to take action against violent right-wing extremist online propaganda – even though the EU interior ministers sent a request to this effect to Europol more than two years ago. Last spring, the agency organised its first action day on right-wing extremism in the internet.

One of the tasks of the EU IRU is to find technical solutions to improve the detection of incriminated content. Through the Horizon 2020 programme, the EU Commission is funding the research projects with INFINITY and AIDA with the participation of the EU IRU; it has also acted as an advisor in ten other similar projects. Using „artificial intelligence“, the tools are intended to enable law enforcement agencies to process even large amounts of content and correlate it with other entries.

Image: Simon Hattinga Verschure on Unsplash.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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