From Internet Referral Units to International Agreements: Censorship of the Internet by the UK and EU

126 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2018  

Brian Chang

University of Oxford

Date Written: October 31, 2017


This paper addresses the rise of Internet Referral Units (IRUs) and their implications for freedom of speech online. It also traces the evolution of UK and EU law and policy on the censorship of extremist content online from setting up IRUs towards the seeking of international agreements. Although IRUs are presently justified on the grounds of combatting extremist content online, they are a dangerous precedent of state-initiated, privately-enforced, extra-legal online censorship that could be abused to limit speech that is undesirable for other reasons. IRU referrals request ICT companies to take down content that is against their terms of service or community standards, which are vaguely worded, and less protective of speech than international human rights law is. While IRU referrals appear to be voluntary requests, they are often accompanied by coercive pressures such as the threat of litigation or legislation imposing liability, to which the logical business response will be to create moderation guidelines/algorithms that err on the side of over-censorship. Because of the global nature of content takedowns online, states may attempt to use IRUs to export their local censorship standards, and compel the takedown of content globally. Authoritarian regimes will be tempted to (ab)use IRUs and international agreements requiring the censorship of extremist content online to coerce ICT companies into becoming their censors. To address these concerns, this paper seeks to ground IRUs within international human rights law, the rule of law and democratic safeguards, so that their potential for abuse can be minimized.

Keywords: Extremist Content Online; Internet Censorship; Content Takedown; Terrorism; Internet Referral Units; Business and Human Rights

Suggested Citation

Chang, Brian, From Internet Referral Units to International Agreements: Censorship of the Internet by the UK and EU (October 31, 2017). Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Brian Chang (Contact Author)

University of Oxford ( email )

St Cross Building
St Cross Rd
Oxford, OX1 3UL
United Kingdom

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