By Tim Cushing
Whatever ills there are in the world, the French government is pretty sure American tech companies should solve them. Or, at the very least, agree to be punished for failing to prevent the unpreventable.
Having decided Google should pay French newspapers for sending them traffic, the French government is finally enacting its long-threatened “hate speech” law — one that took all the bad/backfiring ideas from Germany’s hate speech legislation, reformatting it slightly for French sensibilities.
Officials claimed it was more difficult to remove anti-Semitic speech than it was to remove pirated content, which must have come as a surprise to several incumbent industries. The law falls into one of those “we’ll know it when we see it” gray areas that tech companies will be forced to police. Facebook has already helpfully offered to forward user info to French authorities to ensure no online stupidity goes unpunished. And special interest groups have already offered their input, asking the government to treat things like the online disparagement of agriculture and livestock breeding as a criminal act.
The law is now in place, reports Politico.
After months of debate, the lower house of Parliament adopted the controversial legislation, which will require platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to remove flagged hateful content within 24 hours and flagged terrorist propaganda within one hour. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to €1.25 million.
The law, which echoes similar rules already in place in Germany, piles more pressure on Silicon Valley firms to police millions of daily posts in Europe’s two most populous countries.
Apparently this legislation has been at the top of the French government’s to-do list for a couple of years now. Politico points out it’s the first non-Covid-related legislation to have come up for a vote since the middle of March. Supposedly the French public demanded action, albeit indirectly.
“During the lockdown, hate speech online has increased … We can no longer rely on the platforms’ goodwill…” Junior Digital Affairs Minister Cédric O told the National Assembly ahead of the vote.
Having more people online more often is going to increase anything, not just “hate speech” the French government believes it can regulate into nonexistence. The bill’s passage also comes front-loaded with irony. MP Laetitia Avia, one of the sponsors of the law, has been accused of making racist, homophobic, and sexist comments to her assistants.
The law has received plenty of criticism on its way to a vote, but nothing seems to have stopped its momentum — not even the EU Commission’s assertion that France’s hate speech law is not compliant with EU law.
What’s next for platforms is more of the impossible: moderation at scale targeting speech that isn’t easy to target. Expect collateral damage, starting with satire and moving on to those who attempt to highlight hateful speech by others, only to find themselves censored and/or prosecuted for pointing out the bigotry of others.
This hate speech law has been cobbled onto existing anti-terrorism laws, turning law enforcement into the final arbiters of perceived offenses. Any notions of due process have been eliminated, streamlining the consolidation of power to a single branch of the government. This is digital rights group NGO La Quadrature’s assessment of the law.
The separation of powers is entirely ruled out : it is the police who decide the criteria for censoring a site (in law, the concept of “terrorism” is broad enough to give it wide discretion, for example against demonstrators ); the police decide whether a site should be censored; it is the police who execute the sanction against the site. The judge is completely absent from the entire chain that leads to site censorship.
At the very least, the law is a handy way for the French government to insert itself into the moderation efforts of companies located halfway around the world. Setting up impossible mandates guarantees failure by those affected by them. And it’s not just going to make companies like Facebook and Google reconsider their offerings in other countries. It’s going to prevent new platforms and services from entering the market, since they’ll be asked to do the impossible the moment they start hosting content created by French users. Meanwhile, French citizens are being asked to fund the diminishing of their own free speech rights — all under the guise of stopping hate and terrorism. All the while, regulators can sit back on watch the tech company-targeting money printer go brrrrr.