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21 July 2017

Should Social Media Sites be Held Responsible for Illegal Content?

Social media giants Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have come under fire of late for failing to ‘do enough’ to remove illegal content from their sites. Here, the Tej Kohli Foundation explores how much responsibility social media sites should be taking on.

The internet has provided humans with the most diverse and extensive platform for communication in history, but this tremendous potential comes with a dark side. A recent report by a Home Affairs Select Committee dubbed the efforts of social media companies to remove illegal content as ‘shamefully’ inadequate. The comments were made in response to the amount of time it took platforms to remove content such as hate speech, terrorist material and sexual images of children.

The majority of social platforms do currently allow users to flag up content they consider to be inappropriate or illegal, but there are several problems with this system. Flagged material is often not taken down until long after complaints have been registered, if it is dealt with at all. The committee’s report pointed to cases such as openly anti-Semitic and Islamophobic community pages being allowed by Facebook to continue operating, as well as Twitter refusing to remove violent and threatening cartoons.

Recently, Germany’s government unveiled plans to fine social media companies up to 50 million Euros if they failed to remove illegal within seven days following an investigation. ‘Clearly criminal’ content would have only 24 hours to be removed. Social media sites would be required to run staffed, 24 hour systems for reporting content. Germany’s justice minister Heiko Maas also stated that the law would apply to fake news articles in the event that they proved to contain slander, libel or defamations.


While several social media companies admitted that illegal content posed a significant problem, they also pointed to their ongoing efforts to develop ways to tackle the issue. Facebook has recently been reviewing its reporting processes after it was criticised for the length of time it took to remove a video of a shooting posted by the criminal himself.

It is also important that the issue of dangerous and harmful material isn’t allowed to impinge upon people’s freedom to express strong opinions and engage in vigorous debate online. It will perhaps be necessary to decide upon more detailed guidelines before companies are forced to clamp down disproportionately in order to meet obligations. Relying on the social media platforms themselves to remove illegal content also cannot become an alternative to tackling the material at its criminal source.

At the Tej Kohli Foundation, we are committed to the positive social impact of technology and its potential to benefit humanity. The internet has already transformed the way we communicate beyond recognition, and has the potential to change our world even further. From social media companies to individual users, we all share some responsibility in ensuring that this potential is met in a way that benefits us all.