E.U.-funded project recommends a ‘flag as terrorism’ button in browsers

The European Commission’s CleanIT project has been an Internet punching bag since September, when a draft of its recommendations -- including mandatory use of real names on social networks -- first hit the Internet.

Wednesday, the two-year, $442,000-study on Internet terrorism released its final list of best practices. But while CleanIT has scrapped some of its more controversial ideas, it’s still earned widespread criticism from tech pundits in Europe and beyond.

The project’s most inflammatory recommendation advises social networks and browsers add a terrorism flagging button, similar to the “report this video” function on Youtube or “report this user for spam” on Twitter.

“Internet users currently do not have enough easy ways of reporting terrorist use of social media,” the report explains. “As a consequence, some terrorist use of the Internet is currently not brought to the attention of Internet companies and competent authorities.”

The report also suggests a number of more common-sense measures, such as better international cooperation and further academic study of terrorists online.

So far, critics sound unimpressed. Most seem concerned that the project has only vague definitions for online terrorism -- “terrorist use of the Internet is currently not widely known or understood,” the report reads -- and seems unaware of how a flagging function could be turned to censorship or political ends.

European Digital Rights, a Belgium-based civil rights group, called the recommendations “worrying” and said the project “still believes in a circumvention of the rule of law.”

On Reddit, commenters complained that a flagging function could be misused by censors and pranksters alike. “That's an incredibly dumb solution looking for a problem that doesn't really exist,” said one user. “Although I guess we could use the ‘This may be terrorism’ option to flag all articles about the Iraq invasion …”

“if (religion == "Islam") { flag.raise(); },” joked another in faux Javascript, suggesting anything about Muslims would be flagged.

Even Ars Technica, whose editor moderated CleanIT’s concluding conference this afternoon, labeled the recommendations “odd” and “strange,” adding “what could go wrong? Well, plenty...”

This certainly isn’t the European Commission’s first questionable tech initiative. In June, the commission launched a campaign called “Science: it’s a girl thing” that showed young women gasping as they examined atomic models and blowing kisses at test-tubes.

Still, the commission claimed success in that case, and the CleanIT project might succeed too. On Tuesday Italy also signed on to the project, making it the 11th European country to do so.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (tinyletter.com/cdewey)

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Liz Sly · January 30, 2013