It is often argued that Facebook is a private enterprise and therefore free to censor whatever it wishes.
However, Facebook and the other internet giants, such as Google, YouTube (a subsidiary of Google), and Twitter, have come to control the flow of information on the internet, to such a degree – as virtual monopolies — that they have become the ‘public square’ of our times. That outcome makes them far more than merely private enterprises and endows them with a special responsibility: Those who cannot publish on Facebook or Twitter, effectively no longer have full freedom of speech.
Governments have always known that free speech can be controlled on social media — there is no internet freedom in countries such as China or Russia. For years, however, Western governments have also been controlling the conduct of free speech on the internet – in the name of fighting supposed ‘hate speech’. Controlling free speech has taken the form of ‘cooperating’ with the internet giants — Facebook, Google, Twitter and You Tube — on voluntary initiatives such as the EU “Code of Conduct on countering illegal online hate speech online“, which requires social media giants to act as censors on behalf of the European Union and to remove within 24 hours content that is regarded as “illegal hate speech”.
This control of free speech has also brought about national legislation, such as Germany’s censorship law, in 2018. This law requires social media platforms to delete or block any alleged online “criminal offenses”, such as libel, slander, defamation or incitement, within 24 hours of receipt of a user complaint. If the platforms fail to do so, the German government can fine them up to 50 million euros for failing to comply with the law.
Two new initiatives look likely to intensify government censorship on the internet.
In France, a recent government report about Facebook, commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, has called for increasing government oversight over the social media giant. This new ‘oversight’ includes allowing an “independent regulator” to police how Facebook deals with alleged hate speech. The report has also called for laws allowing the French government to investigate and fine social networks that “don’t take responsibility” for the content published by users on their websites. As part of writing the report, French regulators who spent six months inside Facebook, monitoring its policies, concluded, “The inadequacy and lack of credibility in the self-regulatory approach adopted by the largest platforms justify public intervention to make them more responsible”.
France’s parliament is currently debating legislation that would give such a new ‘independent regulator’ the power to fine tech companies up to 4% of their global revenue if they do not do enough to remove ‘hateful content’ from their network. “I am hopeful that it [the French proposal] can become a model that can be used across the EU”, Mark Zuckerberg said after a recent meeting with Macron.
In Paris on May 15, 17 countries, the European Commission, and eight major tech companies adopted the Christchurch Call to Action agreement. This agreement, initiated by France and New Zealand, is named after a terrorist attack that killed 51 Muslim worshipers in two Christchurch mosques in March. According to the Christchurch Call’s website:
“The Christchurch Call is a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. It rests on the conviction that a free, open and secure internet offers extraordinary benefits to society. Respect for freedom of expression is fundamental. However, no one has the right to create and share terrorist and violent extremist content online.
“The support shown in Paris for the Christchurch Call is just the first step. We are now calling on other countries, companies, and organisations to join us.”
The US did not sign the agreement. The White House wrote in an official statement:
“We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Further, we maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging.”
As indicated by the US in its statement, the problem with these government-led drives for more censorship in the name of fighting “terrorist and violent extremist content online” is where one draws the line as to what constitutes “hate speech”, and the extent to which such drives can manage to uphold the rights of citizens to free speech. In Europe, hate-speech laws have increasingly been used to shut downthe speech of citizens who disagree with government migration policies.