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Facebook Refuses to Remove Flagged Child Pornography, ISIS Videos

Britain's The Times reported that Facebook refused to remove potentially illegal terrorist and child pornography content despite it being flagged by users. This content potentially puts the social media giant at risk of criminal prosecution.

"Last month The Times created a fake profile on Facebook to investigate extremist content," Alexi Mostrous, the paper's head of investigations, reported Thursday. "It did not take long to come across dozens of objectionable images posted by a mix of jihadists and those with a sexual interest in children."

Mostrous reported that a Times reporter posed as an IT professional in his thirties, befriended more than 100 supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS), and joined groups promoting lewd or pornographic images of children. He then "flagged" many of the images and ISIS videos.

Facebook moderators reportedly kept online pro-jihadist posts including one praising ISIS attacks "from London to Chechnya to Russia and now Bangladesh in less than 48 hours," promising to bring war "in the heart of your homes." The site's moderators also refused to remove an official news bulletin posted by the Islamic State praising the slaughter of 91 "Christian warriors" in the Palm Sunday bombings of two Egyptian churches.

Moderators, who are based in Ireland, California, Texas, and India, also kept up a video showing the gruesome beheading of hostages by ISIS terrorists. Facebook said it did not break its own rules against graphic violence when it kept up a video with a masked British jihadist holding a knife over a beheaded man, saying, "The spark has been lit here in Iraq. Here we are burying the first American crusader."

Facebook also left up dozens of pornographic cartoons depicting child abuse, which Mostrous argued are likely illegal under a 2009 British law. "Intermingled with the cartoons, posted on forums with titles such as Raep Me, are pictures of real children, including several likely to be illegal."

The Times also reported that Facebook kept up a video which appeared to show a young child being violently abused.

"In my view, many of the images and videos identified by The Times are illegal," Julian Knowles, a Queen's Counsel (an eminent British lawyer appointed by Queen Elizabeth II), told the paper. "One video appears to depict a sexual assault on a child. That would undoubtedly break UK indecency laws. The video showing a beheading is very likely to be a publication that encourages terrorism."

Knowles added that he "would argue that the actions of people employed by Facebook to keep up or remove reported posts should be regarded as the actions of Facebook as a corporate entity."

"If someone reports an illegal image to Facebook and a senior moderator signs off on keeping it up, Facebook is at risk of committing a criminal offense because the company might be regarded as assisting or encouraging its publication and distribution," the lawyer concluded.

The Times reportedly informed the London Metropolitan Police, which coordinates counterterrorism investigations, and the National Crime Agency (NCA), about its findings.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman did not reveal whether Facebook would be investigated.

"Social media companies need to get their act together fast, this has been going on for too long," declared Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the police department's home affairs select committee. "It's time the government looked seriously at the German proposal to invoke fines if illegal and dangerous content isn't swiftly removed."

Robert Buckland, the solicitor general for England and Wales, warned that if social media companies were "reckless" in allowing terrorist material to remain online, they might be charged with breaking British law under the 2006 Terrorism Act. This law forbids the dissemination of terrorist material.

Facebook has reportedly removed the images and videos in question, but only after The Times contacted the social media network for comment. "The majority of the pornographic cartoons remained live until Facebook removed them after the newspaper's approach yesterday," Mostrous reported.

Justin Osofsky, Facebook's vice president of global operations, thanked The Times for notifying the social media company of the potentially illegal content.

"We are grateful to The Times for bringing this content to our attention," Osofsky told the paper. "We have removed all of these images, which violate our policies and have no place on Facebook. We are sorry that this occurred. It is clear that we can do better, and we'll continue to work hard to live up to the high standards people rightly expect of Facebook."

According to The Times, however, an undercover user had already flagged this material as offensive, and Facebook had decided to keep it up, with moderators reportedly saying the images and videos did not violate the site's "community standards."

Most users do not have access to an established news outlet like The Times, which was founded in 1785 and is published daily throughout London. It is truly a tragedy if Facebook does not take ordinary users' flagging such material seriously, and only decides to remove such content when approached by such a longstanding and well-known outlet.

As Osofsky said, child porn and terrorist videos "have no place on Facebook." None whatsoever.