Commission backs away from regulating online platforms over hate speech

EU Commissioner in charge of Justice, Consumers and gender equality, Věra Jourová , speaks at a news conference on a second monitoring of the illegal online hate speech code of conduct in Brussels, Belgium, 1 June 2017. [Olivier Hoslet/EPA]

The European Commission is backing away from a plan to propose binding EU legislation that would force online platforms to remove posts containing hate speech.

EU justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said it is likely she will not regulate tech firms over hate speech. Instead, she wants to continue relying on a non-binding agreement that she brokered with Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and Microsoft in 2015, which she said is working.

“Each of the four IT companies has shown more responsibility,” Jourova told a news conference.

“It is time to balance the power and responsibility of platforms and social media giants. This is what European citizens rightly expect,” she added.

She praised Facebook’s announcement last year that it will hire 3,000 people to monitor its users’ posts for hate speech. Facebook also said last summer that it plans to add 500 staff members in Germany to review complaints about hate speech.

Social media firms are under increased pressure in Germany: a new law went into effect there at the beginning of this year that requires platforms to remove illegal hate speech quickly, or face fines of up to tens of millions of euros.

Jourova announced that Instagram and Google+ will sign onto the Commission’s voluntary code of conduct to review alerts about hate speech within 24 hours. She wants even more companies to join.

Some civil liberties NGOs have criticised the non-binding agreement because they argue that it gives private companies too much power to decide what speech is illegal and should be removed from the internet.

Hate speech is illegal in every EU member state, but national laws defining hate speech vary.

According to the Commission’s newest figures, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and Microsoft reviewed 81.7% of complaints about hate speech within 24 hours. That’s a big change from May 2017, when the firms only assessed 39% of alerts within the same time.

Facebook removed a total 79% of posts containing hate speech across the EU. Youtube took down 75%, and Twitter removed 45.7% of content with hate speech. The Commission’s report does not list similar figures for Microsoft.

Five Commissioners team up to threaten internet platforms with EU legislation

Five EU Commissioners all wanted a piece of the action on Tuesday (9 January) at a meeting with CEOs from some of the biggest internet platforms.

The companies pointed out that they have started developing new technology and hiring staff to meet the Commission’s demands.

Google’s vice president of public policy for Europe, Nicklas Lundblad, said in a statement that the company is testing machine learning technology that can detect a large group of posts containing hate speech.

“We’re going further and faster in tackling illegal hate speech and abusive content. Over the last two years, we’ve consistently improved our review and action times for this type of content on YouTube, showing that our policies and processes are effective, and getting better over time,” Lundblad said.

Stephen Turner, Twitter’s manager for public policy, called the non-binding code of conduct the “correct path forward”.

Overall, the companies removed 100% of posts that were flagged to them as containing hate speech in Germany—more than in any other EU member state. That data was collected between May and December 2017, while the new law affecting social media firms was debated and passed in the Bundestag.

But the firms have not been as active in removing posts in other countries: the platforms took down the least amount of content with hate speech in Denmark, at a rate of 42.5% of the total complaints they received.

Jourova is not encouraging the companies to remove 100% of all posts that are flagged to them by NGOs and public authorities.

“I will never tell you that we will invent the method and the process which will delete within 24 hours 100% of illegal content. That’s the Chinese way of doing it,” she said.

The EU justice chief appears reassured by the new data showing that companies now react quickly to most alerts.

At a meeting last week with CEOs from more than a dozen tech companies, Jourova sounded less forgiving. She warned that her patience with platforms was running thin.

The Commission has promised to announce by May whether it will propose legislation requiring platforms to remove hate speech.

“Stronger EU level coordination is needed,” Jourova said after the meeting with CEOs.

Next week, she will brief justice ministers from EU countries on her plans to stick to the non-binding agreement. Some member states including Germany have pushed for Jourova to propose a hard law, while others want to avoid legislation.

Siada El Ramly, director of EDiMA, a lobby group representing platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft, said that legislation might take too long to take effect.

“We’re dealing with an issue that needs quick action and legislative solutions will take a long time to get through the normal democratic process. The question will be: is it still going to be effective at the end of that route?,” El Ramly said.

Tougher EU hate speech guidelines urge tech giants to prevent ‘digital Wild West’

The European Commission wants internet platforms to take down illegal posts faster, and is considering new legislation as one way to satisfy pressure from countries like Germany and France.


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