A new agreement between the European Commission and four major U.S. companies—Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft—went into effect yesterday. The agreement will require companies to “review the majority of valid notifications for removal of hate speech in less than 24 hours and remove or disable access to such content,” as well as “educate and raise awareness” with their users about the companies’ guidelines.
The deal was made under the Commission’s “EU Internet Forum,” launched last year as a means to counter what EDRi calls “vaguely-defined ‘terrorist activity and hate speech online.’” While some members of civil society were able to participate in discussions, they were excluded from the negotiations that led to the agreement, says EDRi.
The agreement has been met with opposition by a number of groups, including EDRi (of which we’re a member), Access Now, and Index on Censorship, all of which have expressed concerns that the deal with stifle freedom of expression. The decision has also sparked debate on social media, with a wide variety of individuals and groups opposing the decision under the hashtag #IStandWithHateSpeech.
But you don’t have to stand with hate speech to stand against this decision. There are several reasons to oppose this Orwellian agreement. First, while Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows states to limit freedom of expression under select circumstances, such limitations are intended to be the exception, and are permitted only to protect the following:
The rights or reputations of others,
public health, or
These limits must also meet a three-part test as defined by the ICCPR: be defined by law; have legitimate aim; and and be truly necessary. While some of the speech that concerns the Commission may very well qualify as illegal under some countries’ laws, the method by which they’ve sought to limit it will surely have a chilling effect on free speech.
In addition, as EDRi points out, despite a lengthy negotiation between companies and the Commission, “hate speech” remains vaguely-defined. Companies have been tasked with taking the lead on determining what constitutes hate speech, with potentially disastrous results.
In fact, social media companies have an abysmal track record when it comes to regulating any kind of speech. As Onlinecensorship.org’s research shows, speech that is permitted by companies’ terms of service is often removed, with users given few paths to recourse. Users report experiencing bans from Facebook for 24 hours to up to 30 days if the company determines they’ve violated the Community Standards—which, in many cases, the user has not. Requiring companies to review complaints within 24 hours will almost surely result in the removal of speech that would be legal in Europe.
By taking decision-making outside of the democratic system and into backrooms, and granting corporations even greater control, the European Commission is ensuring a chill on online speech.