Hungary raises concerns about ‘shadow banning’ of online speech

The practice of so-called 'shadow banning' is stifling freedom of expression online and may have to be addressed through regulatory measures, Hungary's Minister of Justice Judit Varga has said.

Hungary's Justice Minister Judit Varga (C) arrives for a meeting of EU General Affairs ministers at the European Council building in Luxembourg, 13 October 2020. [EPA-EFE/VIRGINIA MAYO]

The practice of so-called ‘shadow banning’ is stifling freedom of expression online and may have to be addressed through regulatory measures, Hungary’s Minister of Justice Judit Varga has said, accusing Facebook of inhibiting “Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions”.

‘Shadow banning’ refers to the act of blocking users of social media platforms from posting content, without having informed them that such restrictions have been put in place. Major platforms strongly deny that such activities take place.

On Tuesday (19 January), Varga sat down with Csaba Rigó, president of the Hungarian Competition Authority, to discuss ways to reign in the ‘problematic commercial practices’ of platforms giants.

Following the meeting, Varga disclosed that the Hungarian government has concerns with the ways in which social media platforms moderate online speech.

“Recent experience shows that the behaviour of these giants often not only violates freedom of expression but also jeopardises fair competition and consumer rights too,” a Facebook post from Varga read.

An earlier statement from Varga said that she believes certain ‘shadow banning’ activities have been unfairly imposed against certain political views online, accusing Facebook of limiting the visibility of “Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions.”

At the time of writing, Facebook had not yet responded to EURACTIV’s request for comment.

Such concerns appear to have gained momentum in the wake of Twitter and Facebook’s recent decision to remove the social media accounts of outgoing US President Donald Trump, who was accused of inciting calls to violence in the run-up to the recent Capitol Building riots in Washington.

The move sparked concern across Europe, where the principle of freedom of expression is held in high regard. The European Commission said that it is “no longer acceptable” for platforms to make key takedown decisions such as these.

Various high-profile politicians from across the bloc added their names to the chorus of concerns, with Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying that it should not be up to the “management of social media platforms” to police the extent to which freedom of expression can be “interfered with”.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire also registered his apprehension at the takedowns, noting how the “regulation of the digital world cannot be done by the digital oligarchy.”

'No longer acceptable' for platforms to take key decisions alone, EU Commission says

It is “no longer acceptable” for social media giants to take key decisions on content removals online, following the high profile takedowns of US President Trump’s accounts on Facebook and Twitter, the European Commission has said.

Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act

Varga also said she had convened an extraordinary meeting of the country’s Digital Freedom Committee, a branch of the justice ministry, to address some of these concerns and inform Hungary’s position on current EU regulatory efforts to reign in the abusive practices of digital giants.

In December last year, the Commission presented two landmark proposals in a bid to do just that. Under the Digital Services Act, platforms could face the prospect of billions of euros in fines unless they abide by new rules on advertising transparency, illegal content removal, and data access. Penalties for violations include fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual income.

Meanwhile, as part of a new set of obligations outlined in the Digital Markets Act draft, platforms will be banned from using data gathered on their core service to offer other services in competition with rivals and there will be prohibitions on certain self-preferencing activities.

However, following the emergence of new issues related to the moderation of the online space, there are those who believe an extra effort will have to be invested in the measures to ensure that freedom of expression online will not be compromised in the decisions taken by platforms.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s political ally Poland echoed these sentiments last week, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki saying that the “owners of social networks cannot act above the law.”

“We will do our best to define the framework for the functioning of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other similar platforms,” he added.

After Trump, we must fight to rebuild the ruins of democracy

Even after US President Trump is gone, the underlying causes of division, mistrust, and frustration won’t go away and Europe must future-proof itself against any risks to democracy – particularly in the online world, writes Věra Jourová.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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