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The threat of terrorism has escalated the age-old battle between national security and individual rights — and technology companies are often caught in the crosshairs.

Apple’s dispute with the FBI and WhatsApp’s skirmishes with the Brazilian government are just two recent examples of a conflict that’s been playing out for decades. In what could be viewed as a preemptive move, Microsoft outlined a new set of policies for dealing with terrorist content on its consumer services.

“It’s inevitable – and understandable – that digital technology has become a focus of demands for new measures to combat terrorism,” Microsoft said in a blog post Friday. “The Internet has become the primary medium for sharing ideas and communicating with one another, and the events of the past few months are a strong reminder that the Internet can be used for the worst reasons imaginable.”

Microsoft, which is separately suing the U.S. Justice Department over secrecy orders, amended its terms of use to explicitly prohibit terrorist content, which it defines as “material posted by or in support of organizations included on the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List that depicts graphic violence, encourages violent action, endorses a terrorist organization or its acts, or encourages people to join such groups.”

Under the amended terms of use, Microsoft will expand it’s “notice-and-takedown” policy, removing content flagged as terrorist-related.

The company won’t police its Bing search engine quite so vigorously, however. It plans to only remove links to terrorist-related content from Bing when local law requires the company to do so.

Protesters supporting Apple at the company's store in March.
Protesters supporting Apple at the company’s store in March.

Historically, Microsoft has pushed back against law enforcement’s attempts to bend the rights of individuals in the interest of national security. Earlier this year, when the FBI pressed Apple to break into a terrorist’s iPhone, Microsoft filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Apple.

“Our Bing search engine strives to be an unbiased information and action tool, presenting links to all relevant information available on the Internet,” Microsoft said on its blog Friday. “(Like other search engines, Bing generally does not host content itself.) In the context of a tool for accessing information, we believe that societies, acting through their governments, ought to draw the line between free speech and limitations relating to particular types of content.”

Instead of censoring Bing search results, Microsoft is considering partnerships with NGOs to display positive messaging and public service announcements to users searching for material related to terrorism.

“We’re hopeful that these upcoming collaborations will help protect troubled individuals from heading down a path toward violence,” Microsoft says.

Microsoft is also supporting several anti-terrorism groups and projects. The company is adding tools for dealing with hate speech to its YouthSparkHub and investing in technology to help curb the spread of terrorist material online. Microsoft is also a founding member of a partnership between private companies, academics, government agencies, and the UN, aimed at combating the spread of terrorism on the Internet.

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