Europol Regulations and Policies
Europol is the European Union’s law enforcement agency. It is engaged with the responses to various security issues across the EU – including terrorist use of the internet – and also works with third countries and international organizations such as NATO. Europol’s mandate was established by EU Regulation 2016/794. The organization’s objectives are set out in Article 3 of the Regulation and are focused on the support offered by the Agency to Member States to fight serious crime and terrorism. In order to achieve those objectives, Europol is authorized to perform tasks listed under Art. 4 of the same Regulation. In particular, under Art. 4(1)(m) Europol is expected to “support Member States’ actions in preventing and combating forms of crime listed in Annex I which are facilitated, promoted or committed using the internet, including, in cooperation with Member States, the making of referrals of internet content, by which such forms of crime are facilitated, promoted or committed, to the online service providers concerned for their voluntary consideration of the compatibility of the referred internet content with their own terms and conditions.”
In order to achieve the objective set out in Art. 3, Europol is entitled to receive, process and act on law enforcement information received by the Member States, Union bodies, third countries, international organizations and private parties. It also gathers information directly from publicly-available sources, including the internet (Art. 17). Safeguards on the collection of data have been put into places such as general principles (Art. 28), storage time-limits (Art. 31) and a complaint mechanism (Art. 47). The Regulation, applied since May 2017, facilitates the response of the Agency to terrorism and other forms of crime. It also includes stronger rules for the actions and the work of the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) and the EU Internet Referral Unit. The latter has been established by Europol in 2015 as responsible for detecting and investigating potentially illegal content on the internet and in social media. In fact, “jihadist groups, in particular, have demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of how social networks operate and have launched well-organized, concerted social media campaigns to recruit followers and to promote or glorify acts of terrorism and violent extremism.” Among other tasks, the Unit is charged with identifying terrorist content on the internet, requesting its removal, collaborating with industry, and supporting the referral process. The reason behind this careful attention towards the problem of illegal online content is presented in the European Union Terrorism Situation And Trend Report (TESAT, 2018), which provides an overview of the nature and volume of terrorism that the EU faced in 2017.
According to the TESAT report, online propaganda and networking via social media are core to terrorist organizations’ recruitment, radicalization and fundraising. It states that “[b]y 2017, over 150 social media platforms were identified as being abused by terrorists for propaganda dissemination”. Additionally, the report noted that file-sharing sites are being used “to store and disseminate terrorist content”.
Efforts to regulate the internet have led to a certain decrease in the amount of terrorist content disseminated via platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Nevertheless, progress has yet to be made with start-ups and smaller companies that have limited resources to cope with current quantities of such content. While the report gives a description of the major trends and challenges regarding terrorism, it does not offer a concrete counter-terrorism strategy besides mentioning the work of the EU IRU. The latter has also worked within the framework of the EU Internet Forum, a platform created by the EU Commission in 2015. The Commission includes EU Interior Ministers, Internet companies, Europol, and the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and focuses on reducing access to terrorist content online.
In 2018, Europol published an Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) report on emerging threats and developments in cybercrime. The report offers several recommendations on tackling terrorists’ use of the internet. These include the establishment of closer coordination and cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the private sector, as a fundamental step for limiting terrorist groups’ ability to distribute propaganda materials and conduct recruitment.