Yesterday the UK government announced the development of a machine learning tool, with which it will seek out material from terror group ISIS before it is uploaded to the Web. The tool, built with public money, can detect extremist propaganda to “an extremely high degree of accuracy”.
This accuracy, Britain’s Home Office claims, comes in at 94% of ISIS material detected, at a rate of 99.995%. That may seem watertight. But as TechCrunch has reported, on a platform like Facebook, which has over two billion users, information could be falsely flagged at a rate of 50,000 per day.
All of which is still, in this reporter’s mind, a small price to pay to eradicate the ability of groups like ISIS to infiltrate the Internet and recruit people to its medieval cause. The $830,000 project is also a damning indictment of the lack of security measures YouTube, Facebook and other online giants have in place – and exactly why major advertisers have issued warnings about their future digital engagements.
It may concern people that a government is even attempting to censor material at all, in a world in which democratic institutions are shrinking and nationalist populism is on the rise. But that is an issue of politics, not tech: machine learning is here to stay, and it’s available to state and non-state actors. If Britons wants to prevent their government from censorship, they must take to the streets – or elect politicians to reverse the trend.
Cutting out ISIS propaganda before it is published may sound worrying but it is a worthy cause. Home secretary Amber Rudd, who has championed the project, is currently touring Silicon Valley to learn more about how tech and politics are intertwined. Too late, some might say. But it is a necessary step, and one which, if it leads to effective policy-making, could save lives.
Britain’s government has been slow to react to social media’s influence on its democracy. But its latest plans are proving that late is better than never. And when it comes to platforms loathe to change their ways, little wonder states are stepping in. Censorship is rarely ideal. But sometimes it is unavoidable.