Internet platforms are coming under more and more pressure in Europe, and now face a potential legal threat if they do not remove posts with terrorist content within one hour.
The EU executive has threatened to regulate tech giants like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter over illegal content like hate speech for the past two years. The Commission still has not confirmed whether it will propose legislation.
But on Thursday (1 March), four Commissioners toughened up their approach: they want tech companies to remove all illegal content more quickly, including hate speech and copyright infringement.
However, the one-hour deadline only applies to terrorist content, and is the shortest ever time limit that the Commission has set for platforms.
While the recommendation is not a piece of binding legislation, the Commission argues that it can hold up in courts and carries more legal weight than its previous ‘communications’ on online illegal content.
The Commission published its most recent of those non-binding documents in January. It showed that over the last year, social media giants have started to remove more posts with illegal content within 24 hours. That timeframe was one of the EU executive’s main demands from the platforms.
EURACTIV reported two weeks ago on a leaked version of the new recommendation.
Andrus Ansip, the Commission Vice-President who oversees digital single market policies, said the recommendation is different because it can hold up against legal challenges, and adds new definitions of what kinds of online companies are affected.
“Our member states, our service providers can use this legal text in different court cases,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“I think this recommendation will help service providers because they will get a clear frameworks of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” Ansip said.
He also told the news conference that he does not want to change the EU’s eCommerce directive, an 18-year-old law that guarantees online platforms are not legally responsible for what their users post.
“We can easily kill 6000 European platforms when saying those platforms have to be fully responsible for all the content uploaded on those platforms. No way,” Ansip said.
The Estonian Liberal politician has argued for a light-touch approach to encourage platforms to remove illegal posts.
But the Commission has faced increasing pressure from EU member states to crack down on tech giants. Germany has led those calls. In January, a new German law went into effect that slaps social media firms with fines of up to €50 million if they do not quickly remove illegal posts.
Ansip has also come up against other EU Commissioners who prefer a tougher approach to get platforms to remove illegal posts.
Julian King, the British Commissioner in charge of the EU security union, took the lead in preparing the recommendation, sources said.
The Commission also said on Thursday that its legal analysts are drafting an in-house study to determine what other measures it could take to force tech companies to remove even more illegal material. The EU executive may still propose hard law.
The new plan has already drawn backlash from tech giants and campaigners for online rights.
EDiMA, a Brussels-based association that represents big platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon, said it was “dismayed” by the announcement because companies have been meeting the Commission’s demands over the last two years to remove more illegal posts.
“Our sector accepts the urgency but needs to balance the responsibility to protect users while upholding fundamental rights – a one-hour turn-around time in such cases could harm the effectiveness of service providers’ take-down systems rather than help,” EDiMA said in a statement.
Civil liberties groups argued the recommendation may encourage social media firms to overzealously remove users’ posts in order to meet the strict deadline.
They criticised the Commission’s announcement because it puts pressure on tech companies but does not force them to comply with a clear law.
But that approach pushes “’voluntary’ censorship to internet giants to avoid legislation that would be subject to democratic scrutiny and judicial challenge,” said Joe McNamee, director of the NGO European Digital Rights.
Another controversial measure in the new recommendation is the Commission’s amped up support for social media companies to use automated technologies to detect illegal content quickly.
CCIA, a lobby group whose members include Facebook and Google, said that “broad adoption” of those tools could lead to “widespread online censorship by forcing hosting services providers to suppress potentially legal content”.
Youtube and Facebook already use artificial intelligence to find illegal posts.
King said more companies need to follow their example because the same illegal material might be posted on more than one platform.
“We want the larger platforms to help the smaller platforms so we can avoid a migration of this content,” the British Commissioner said.