French parliament adopts controversial online hate speech bill

Facebook, Twitter and similar online platforms will now need to remove illegal content quickly or face huge fines

France’s parliament will now oblige platforms and search engines, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, to remove prohibited content within 24 hours starting 1 July under a newly approved bill aimed at fighting hate online. Lawmakers adopted the proposed legislation late on Wednesday, despite the fact that it has been dismissed numerous times as censorship by detractors.

The law was the first with no link to the ongoing coronavirus emergency to be voted on in the National Assembly, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party holds a majority, since the epidemic hit France two months ago. An extension of Macron’s vow to battle racism and anti-Semitism propagated via the internet, the bill was first submitted to parliament over a year ago by his LREM party and was amended multiple times in response to criticism.

The latest version targets texts, pictures, videos and web pages that incite hatred or violence, or that carry insults of a racist or religious nature, although there is once again no clear definition of what that means exactly. What is clear is that in case a company does not comply with the one-hour deadline to remove terrorism and pedophilia-related content after being instructed to do so by the authorities, it would be subject to fines of up to €1.25m ($1.1m) or up to 4% of social networks and other online content providers' global revenue. 

When it comes to other "manifestly illicit"  content, the deadline is 24 hours. 

Furthermore, for this process to be closely scrutinised, the law also requires for a specialised digital prosecutor to be set up at the courts and a government unit to observe and report hate speech online. 

According to French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, the law only seeks to "induce responsibility" from the creators of online platforms who argue "that the tool they themselves have created is uncontrollable".

“People will think twice before crossing the red line if they know that there is a high likelihood that they will be held to account,” she told the parliament on Wednesday.

The bill, however, faced vociferous opposition in France and beyond from critics who said it would curtail the democratic right to freedom of expression and will make Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple the custodians of it. France's own official National Consultative Commission on Human Rights has criticised the bill for increasing the risk of censorship, and online civil liberties group La Quadrature du Net (LQDN) said it was unrealistic to think that illegal content could be removed within an hour.

"Short removal times and large fines for non-compliance further incentivize platforms to over-remove content," LQDN said ahead of the Wednesday debate, adding that this could "lead to targeted campaigns against underrepresented voices."

The Computer & Communications Industry Association, an advocacy group with offices in Washington and Brussels, said, meanwhile, it was concerned the French legislation “could lead to excessive takedowns of content as companies, especially startups, would err on the side of caution.”

In the meantime, digital companies are worried about fines or legal battles that may result from the new onus placed on them to determine what content violates the bill, and then withdraw it within the given timeframe.  

Europost reminds, that back in November, the European Commission requested France hold off on passing the law until the Digital Services Act, an overhaul of how the EU regulates digital platforms, is rolled out across the European Union. But French officials ignored such concerns, with Digital Minister Cédric O saying they will "lean on national hate speech law to weigh in on the Digital Services Act."

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