A toxic combination of misinformation, hate speech and online harassment is pushing several European countries to take action against social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but some believe their actions — however well-intentioned — run the risk of stifling free speech and putting dangerous restrictions on freedom of the press.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom are all either discussing or are already in the process of implementing requirements for social networks to take measures to remove or block online hate speech, harassment and so-called “fake news.”
“The real concern here is that all of these measures cede control to unaccountable actors,” says Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who is based in Berlin. “These are knee-jerk proposals that fail to take into account the ways in which companies have utterly failed to protect important speech, and are therefore unqualified to do the job.”
Facebook, for example, routinely removes content or blocks accounts without saying why, and even if the content or accounts are later reinstated, the company rarely explains why it made the decisions it did, except to cite its “community standards” rules.
French president Emmanuel Macron said in a speech to journalists last week that he is considering introducing legislation that would require social networks such as Facebook to be more transparent about who pays for sponsored content, and he is also thinking about giving the French media regulator more power to block or remove “fake news” content during elections.
“If we want to protect liberal democracies, we must be strong and have clear rules,” Macron said, adding that France’s media watchdog, the CSA, would be given the power to fight against “any attempt at destabilisation” by media outlets controlled or influenced by foreign states, such as the Kremlin-linked TV network Russia Today.
Observers say the topic of fake news is of special interest for the French president because he sees himself as the victim of fake news stories that ran during the most recent election, including rumors that he was being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, that he has offshore bank accounts and that he is engaged in a secret homosexual affair.
Critics, however, say Macron’s proposed legislation would not actually solve the problem. “The law focuses on the trees rather than the forest,” French law professor Alberto Alemanno wrote in an essay for Politico responding to the news. “As such, it will remain irrelevant and aggravate the root causes fueling the fake news phenomenon.”
In Germany, the primary concern is hate speech, and the German government is much farther down the road than most other European nations when it comes to implementing new rules governing such behavior. The recently implemented Enforcement on Social Networks Act requires social networks to remove specific kinds of content or face fines as high as $60 million.
The risks of this kind of measure backfiring have also become obvious, however: Citing the German law, Twitter recently removed an account belonging to Titanic, a satirical magazine that posted tweets designed to be a parody of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Despite such incidents, observers say that a number of other European countries including France and the UK are watching Germany with interest, and are considering following its lead when it comes to introducing legislation aimed at forcing social networks to police their content.
Alison Langley, a freelance journalist and adjunct professor of communications at Webster University in Geneva, said that the moves by France, Germany and the UK come amid a growing concern about the actions of the Russian government in conducting a misinformation war online, something that she says predates the U.S. election. A recent report by the U.S. Senate came to a similar conclusion.
“The EU has been fighting this for some time, and even NATO is worried about how this is affecting the Baltic states and Ukraine,” Langley said. “The problem with disinformation in general is a lot more sophisticated than what people see in the United States. And when it comes to hate speech, Europe has been rocked by self-radicalized extremists, and they feel they need to combat that problem while still keeping the right to free expression.”
While France is concerned about fake news and Germany worries about hate speech, in the United Kingdom the government has put pressure on the social networks — and raised the threat of potential legislation — because it believes that online harassment aimed at politicians and other public figures is putting democracy at risk.
A recent report from the Committee on Standards for Public Life took Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to task for aiding and abetting in harassment of politicians.
“Social media can lead to widespread access to ideas and information, but they can also facilitate abuse by those who seek to see certain individuals pushed out of public life,” the authors of the report said. “Some MPs and candidates have disengaged entirely from social media due to the intimidation they have received.”
Among other things, the committee recommended new legislation to make social-media companies liable for illegal content and to force them to remove content that might be legal but could also be seen as “intimidatory.”
Critics such as the Index on Censorship, however, say a requirement that media outlets consider whether their content might “undermine public trust in the political system” would be a gift to any politician who wants to challenge a news story, according to Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. “Rather than enhance democracy and freedoms, as this report claims to want to do, this risks damaging it further,” she said in a public statement.
Alison Langley: Freelance writer and adjunct professor of communications at Webster University in Geneva; two really separate issues — one is how to combat disinformation; has been a campaign going on from Russia well before the US election, EU has been fighting this (EU vs disinformation website), NATO is worried about how this is affecting the Baltic states and Ukraine, working to debunk this misinformation — so problem with disinformation in general, way more sophisticated than what people see in the United States, have been dealing with Russia for a lot longer; when you talk about hate speech, there’s a whole range — extreme groups like ISIS, Europe has been rocked by self-radicalized extremists, they feel they need to combat it while at the same time keeping to constitutional rights of free expression… then there’s a whole continuum of speech including teenagers bullying someone or homophobia, etc.; European Commission has attempted to define it, came up with a code of conduct that Internet intermediaries signed, referring to illegal content such as pro-Nazi statements in Germany, they said we will police ourselves, in October of 2016 a review said it was mixed — YouTube was doing a good job but Twitter and Facebook not so much; EU is saying if you want to do business in our country you abide by our laws, Internet intermediaries will argue that they have to do business in many countries… companies have gotten away for too long saying we can’t do this, but finding that they can but only under pressure, they’re trying to find a cheap and easy way to do it; European countries say they are dealing with extremism, there’s been too many bombs, many governments believe much of the extremist behavior and rhetoric is coming from really borderline comments made by far-right groups… the anti-Muslim videos, is that legal? Is it an incitement to violence? German law builds on that, that’s why the Titanic thing raised — EU has said they don’t believe it’s time yet to start fining (Jourova, EU commissioner for digital issues)… she was harassed and vilified on Facebook to the point where she had to delete her account; then went out and referred to it as “a highway for hatred.” She said they want to see if the voluntary code will work… May says they want to do it, France says they’re looking at Germany and saying if it works then we will probably start doing it too; proponents say it will only affect criminal content, incitement of violence against a group, but the opponents say that Facebook, Google and Twitter and Facebook are not media law experts and so far not doing a great job of deciding what to remove; when Titanic was blocked, somebody asked the Justice Minister Heiko Maas for help, used the hashtag Je Suis Charlie; if they are trying to prove that they can self-regulate, they’re not doing a great job… second issue is society’s desire to crack down on impolite speech that is still legal, and third issue which Macron is eager to address is fake news, because he’s been the victim of fake news during the election; he’s got parliamentary majority, when he says I’m going to do it this year, pretty likely it will go through, that’s how French politics works; will force transparency as to who is paying, and will give authority to block or remove it, but they will have the right to contest — says will allow speedy trials for those whose content is blocked or removed; is it you’re going to be censored and then you get to contest it, or are you going to be censored and then you have to contest it? Big difference. Written into the EU statement of rights, in addition to freedom of expression there’s also the right to dignity, lot of people who have been victims of hateful speech are saying I have a right to be on the Internet and be spoken to with dignity… lot of female politicians like Eva Glavishnik are taking hateful commentators to civil court, she said that’s the only way to get these comments taken down, Facebook says she is a politician so she’s a public figure; everyone always talks about free speech in libertarian terms, but there was a view of speech that used to exist that was more communitarian, does it support the community… obviously that is a slippery slope; Rights of Man in France, same year as the First Amendment, there were three newspapers and all were heavily censored, after the Rights more than four thousand papers were published, incredibly polarized, every little viewpoint had their own paper; same thing happened in the US; Sam Adams was so fed up with fake news that he proposed to censor them, came out with the Seditions Act, put newspaper editors in jail; just as the Paris Council did; then Jefferson, a former newspaper guy, prevailed and repealed the Seditions Act, widely believed by 1st Amendment historians that he’s the one who saved free speech, while Napoleon came into office in France; so maybe US can’t do anything about it, but Europe can… are the Internet companies going to regulate themselves or are they going to try and get governments to do it? The Internet companies will say they are worried that EU laws will become the norm for the world, but there is a precedent for selective regulation — they do it in Spain with the right to be forgotten, Twitter does it with Germany and Nazi content