According to the Guardian, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have agreed to comply with the European Union’s new “code of conduct” for the Internet. You can see the code of conduct here, and the EU’s announcement of it, issued today, here. The Guardian notes this:
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft have all been involved in the creation of the code, which is particularly aimed at fighting racism and xenophobia across Europe. Such efforts are hampered by varying enforcement in different countries, something the code is tackling.
It also encourages the social media companies to take quick action as soon as a valid notification is received. [JAC: They say 24 hours, which means that if your Facebook page is taken down, it will take weeks to restore it, if you even can.]
A slim document, the code of conduct isn’t legally binding for the internet companies, even though many of its policies are already covered by other EU legislation such as the e-commerce directive. Instead, it establishes “public commitments” for the companies, including the requirement to review the “majority of valid notifications for removal of illegal hate speech” in less than 24 hours, and to make it easier for law enforcement to notify the firms directly.
While the motivation behind the code seems well-intentioned, the way that it’s defined seems deeply problematic. Here’s what the creator of the code, Vĕra Jourová, the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, said about it, referring to the terrorism in Paris and Brussels:
“The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech,” she said. “Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and racist use to spread violence and hatred.
This agreement is an important step forward to ensure that the internet remains a place of free and democratic expression, where European values and laws are respected.”
This is the problematic part, with some of the background:
Following the EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights in October 2015 on ‘Tolerance and respect: preventing and combating Antisemitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe’, the Commission initiated a dialogue with IT companies, in cooperation with Member States and civil society, to see how best to tackle illegal online hate speech which spreads violence and hate.
The Framework Decision on Combatting Racism and Xenophobia criminalises the public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. This is the legal basis for defining illegal online content.
Freedom of expression is a core European value which must be preserved. The European Court of Human Rights set out the important distinction between content that “offends, shocks or disturbs the State or any sector of the population” and content that contains genuine and serious incitement to violence and hatred. The Court has made clear that States may sanction or prevent the latter.
Unfortunately, the line between hate speech and “freedom of expression” is not a clear one; as well all know, one person’s free speech is another person’s hate speech. Drawing a cartoon of the Pope is okay; drawing a cartoon of Muhammad is hate speech, and can get you killed. Do we trust the EU, or Facebook, to judge wisely?
And freedom of expression in Europe, which is apparently what the EU is codifying as a guide for the social media platforms, differs from free speech in the U.S. While it’s not clear from the EU “Justice” guidelines what constitutes incitement to hatred, some European countries have banned mockery of religion, denial of the Holocaust, and incitement of hatred against races, nationalities, ethnic groups, or religions (see here and here). In the U.S. such expressions are legal so long as they don’t incite imminent violence against groups.
What I expect is that there will now be a rash of complaints by various groups who feel that mockery of their religion, ethnicity, or ideology is ‘hate speech’. Will anti-Zionist speech be banned? What about mockery of Islam, or cartoons about Muhammad? Both should be allowed.
My own personal Facebook page has been taken down twice for “violating community standards”, all because a different page on which I’m a moderator, the Global Secular Humanist Movement—which criticizes religion but doesn’t by any rational standard incite hatred—published something taken as offensive. I suspect that it was cartoons depicted Muhammad or criticizing Islam, but I’m not sure.
The new EU/social media policy necessarily involves a lot of arbitrary decisions. It would be much easier to implement if those organizations adhered to the American standard: let everything be expressed except for repeated harassment of individuals (itself a bit hard to adjucicate), slander and libel, or posts meant to create immediate violence or recruit individuals to terrorist organizations. While most of these criteria are also somewhat subjective, they are much less subjective than the new standards.
Welcome to Big Brother on the Internet.