EXCLUSIVE: Google working with UK on counter-extremism
Google has been providing "digital and communications support" to counter-extremism campaigners backed by the Home Office, even as it faces a backlash from ministers over extremist content online, Middle East Eye can reveal.
The internet search giant’s work with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), which is based in the Home Office and is responsible for the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy, has included social media and video training for Muslim civil society organisations that dates back at least five years.
MEE has seen an invitation to one such session, a “workshop on YouTube and online video optimisation, to be delivered by Google." It was sent out by the OSCT’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU).
'There is no open process. You don’t apply, you are invited'
- Anonymous session attendee
“As you know, we at RICU are supporting a network of civil society groups such as yours to build your communications capabilities,” the invitation said.
A source who attended the session, which took place in 2012 and included a visit to Google’s YouTube studio in central London, told MEE that the invitation had arrived “out of the blue”.
“There is no open process. You don’t apply, you are invited and the people who were invited to attend those seminars would be drawn from a list of organisations that had been pulled together for a good number of years,” said the source, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
Google's low-profile counter-extremism work with government agencies is ongoing. A company representative told a parliamentary inquiry last year that the company had a “long history of working with government and with law enforcement authorities”.
'Profiting from hatred'
Details about Google’s relationship with the OSCT can be revealed as it comes under growing pressure from senior ministers and prominent advertisers over its perceived failure to tackle extremist content online.
Sarah Newton, the Home Office minister responsible for counter-extremism, said last week that Google had been called into Downing Street and “read the riot act” after it emerged that advertisements paid for by the government had appeared on the website of Hizb ut-Tahrir and a website linked to Hezbollah.
Yvette Cooper, the chair of parliament’s home affairs committee, also wrote to the company to accuse it of “profiting from hatred”.
“Google is the second richest company on the planet. The lack of effort and social responsibility it is showing towards hate crime on YouTube is extremely troubling,” wrote Cooper.
Following last week’s London attack, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said that she would be meeting representatives of Google and other social media companies again on Thursday to urge them to “take a more proactive and leading role tackling the terrorist abuse of their platforms” and told Sky News "they're going to get a lot more than a ticking off".
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Theresa May's office have also both called for technology companies to do more to remove extremist material from their platforms.
But details of the workshop delivered by Google suggest that it has links to the government that are closer than either has publicly indicated.
The invitation described it as “an opportunity to learn how to drive audiences to your online videos through effective titles, tagging, descriptions, cross promotion, and how to exploit insight tools”. But MEE’s source said that RICU had also used the session as an opportunity to promote its own work.
“There is a unit within RICU that deals with creating and helping voluntary sector organisations, Muslim ones in particular, to produce better quality content for social media purposes. I remember having conversations with them about whether we’d be interested in working with them to produce some content that we would then put on our website.”
'Challenge extremist propaganda'
Other government departments and other social media companies also have working relationships.
MEE has seen another invitation sent by the Department for Communities and Local Government for an event earlier this year at Twitter’s headquarters aimed at interfaith organisations.
“We aim the workshop to be a practical faith-sensitive workshop with the Twitter experts on maximising and crafting your social media impact and understanding tools and reporting,” the invitation said.
In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) query, the OSCT confirmed that it held information requested about its relationship with Google.
"The Research, Information and Communications Unit connects them with industry experts to provide them with the digital and communications support they need to deliver their own campaigns, including creative advice, production capabilities, website build, media training and public relations support"
- Home Office
But it declined to release further details on the grounds that doing so would compromise national security, prejudice the prevention or detection of crime, and prejudice commercial interests.
The OSCT also said that releasing the names of individuals and organisations with which it worked would constitute a breach of confidence and would undermine the Prevent strategy, which aims to stop people being drawn into terrorism.
But it said that it did bring together civil society groups and industry experts to enable them to “confront and challenge extremist views and propaganda”.
“The Research, Information and Communications Unit connects them with industry experts to provide them with the digital and communications support they need to deliver their own campaigns, including creative advice, production capabilities, website build, media training and public relations support,” it said.
RICU has previously been revealed to have orchestrated a number of ostensibly grassroots counter-extremism campaigns fronted by community groups and campaigners.
Google earlier this year hosted a digital summit at its London headquarters organised by Imams Online, a website alleged to have close links to RICU. Imams Online maintains that its content is “independent of any external influence”.
MEE’s source said the opaque nature of the government’s work with Google and other technology companies raised concerns about the “encroachment of the security agenda into all aspects of our lives”.
“The YouTube session was all about appraising the NGOs who don’t normally get that level of exposure or opportunity and when you are thrown the opportunity of meeting with Google or YouTube and you are a fledging voluntary sector organisation that has struggled to get any kind of grant funding then of course you are going to jump at it. People were interested,” the source said.
But, the source said, the government risked undermining civil society organisations’ credibility and effectiveness by linking funding and training opportunities to the Prevent agenda, which is widely distrusted and considered discriminatory in Muslim communities.
“You need those authentic organisations that have legitimate currency in the sectors they work in to build up resilience and that shouldn’t be compromised by any money or training that has that indelible link to Prevent and the security agenda because then their own constituency just switches off. And it is fundamentally dishonest as well,” the source said.
Google declined to comment for this story but it has stated publicly that it works with governments and community groups to combat extremism.
Anthony House, the head of public policy strategy for Google Europe, Middle East and Africa, last year told a parliamentary inquiry that the company had a “long history of working with government and with law enforcement authorities”.
It has also set up pilot programme offering “Google grants” to charities and NGOs “dedicated to preventing radicalisation” which allowed them to place adverts for free against terrorism-related search terms of their choosing.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has prioritised making the world “safer from violent extremism” and “disrupting online radicalisation and propaganda” as key challenges for which it provides funding for projects via its Jigsaw technology incubator company.
Projects backed by Jigsaw, previously known as Google Ideas, include Abdullah-X, a YouTube cartoon “that aims to steer young minds away from extremism”, and Moonshot CVE, a company that describes itself as “applying start-up thinking to the field of countering violent extremism”.
'Big and powerful companies'
Speaking to BBC radio on Tuesday, David Wells, a former British intelligence officer, said that big technology companies already had relationships with intelligence agencies in the UK and the US.
“There is the existing relationships that go on and work quite well behind the scenes. We saw quite a lot come out of the [Edward] Snowden revelations which revealed quite a lot how big tech companies are working with governments on a case by case basis,” said Wells. “The government is looking to the private sector to solve big problems which they can't solve on their own.”
Luc Delany, a former European policy associate at Google, also said that technology companies were working hard to make sure that governments “understand what they do and why they do it”.
“We are talking about some very big and powerful companies but we are also talking about very new companies,” said Delany.
“No one wants to have criminals behaving on their platforms and networks and they want to work with government to identify potential problems and solve them and they do that with public policy teams, with meetings, with developments, they hire legal experts, they hire former intelligence officers to try and identify these problems.”
The Home Office also declined to offer any further comment to its response to MEE's FOI request. Asked whether it had paid Google for its services, or whether these had been provided in kind, it suggested MEE could submit a further FOI request for clarification.