French anti-hate bill could force tech giants to police their content

Silicon Valley monopolies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have repeatedly failed to police their networks and protect users from hate speech and threats of violence. But a new bill to be debated by the French parliament next week could change that.

The online hatred law, which could become a model template for other European countries, states that hateful comments reported by users must be removed within 24 hours.

It’s will cover attacks on someone’s “dignity” in the protected areas of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Backed with the ability to fine non-compliant companies up to 4% of their global revenue, the bill has significant teeth.

Many people are the constant victim of hate speech online with women and minorities such as gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender users being most in the fire. Some users suffer daily abuse.

British historian Mary Beard has very often talked of the abuse she receives online. When she discussed the ethnicity of Roman Britain she said she faced a “torrent of aggressive insults”.

British historian Mary Beard who faces daily hate messages from anonymous “internet trolls”

France’s Minister for Equality, Marlene Schiappa, spoke up earlier in the year posting screenshots of the abuse she gets each day. It included faked images and videos of her showing her underwear in public.

“You’re Macron’s bitch”, one of the posts on her public Facebook page reads. “You deserve to get a flash-ball right in the head”, continues another. “The Elysee’s whore should think about closing her legs”, says yet another one.

Repeatedly the tech giants have failed to act.

Facebook has complained it is too complex to police content on it’s own platform and has been heavily criticised for uneven policing of hateful posts. Whilst claiming to be cracking down on “fake-news” it decided to leave up a video of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had been doctored to make her appear drunk. Apparently that didn’t count as fake-enough for Facebook.

Twitter has loose terms of reference and most often fails to enforce even those It explicitly gives President Trump a free pass on its anti-harassment policy stating that his posts are in the public interest.

Last month, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube which is owned by Google, publicly apologised to the LGBT community for their decision not to take down a conservative comedian’s for hurling homophobic slurs at a journalist who is gay. The user who is a writer and video host for Vox created a video of the journalist calling him a “lispy sprite” and “little queer.”

Astonishingly the CEO’s defence was to complain that the task was too great:

“If we took down that content, there would be so (much) other content we’d need to take down”

Which is basically saying that their platform is so full of filth, hate and threats of violence they have given up control.

Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Google-owned YouTube.
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Google-owned YouTube.

Because the tech monopolies fail to act, internet trolls and abusers believe they can abuse people with complete impunity.

Laetitia Avia, who entered the French parliament in 2017 has suffered daily racist abuse and death threats. This led her to draw up a law to stop trolls feeling they have “total impunity” for saying online what would be more easily prosecuted as hate speech in the street.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Laetitia said :

“We cannot tolerate on the internet what we won’t tolerate in the street.

If you’re on a bus and someone gets up and shouts ‘Dirty black!’, everyone would ask the bus driver to remove that person from the bus. This law will mean that blatantly hateful content must be taken down from a social network site within 24 hours.”

Germany also implemented legislation on online hate speech in 2018 with campaigners overcoming concerns that the law was too broad and unrealistic, and could lead to censorship.

Under that bill, which is now in force, companies face fines for failing to remove “obviously illegal” content — including hate speech, defamation, and incitements to violence — within 24 hours.

An initial fine of €5 million can rise to €50 million. Web companies would have up to one week to decide on cases that are less clear cut.

Laetitia said social networks were in danger of becoming

“a kind of hell for those who do not correspond to a standard determined by a minority of trolls”.

Europe is leading in the policing of tech companies

Whilst American politicians feel completely comfortable policing what private people do with their own bodies and even how they visit the bathroom, they are highly reluctant to police their own technology companies.

It is European politicians who have more recently decided enough is enough with the free-wheeling “nothing more we can do” attitude in play. The EU has essentially become the only effective regulator of Silicon Valley.

As well has handing out fines totalling nearly $10 billion to American companies for breaking competition rules, the EU enacted broad ranging privacy protection laws last year under GDPR.

We should all hope that France’s bill is passed and quickly put into the statute books so that other countries, including the UK, can follow suit.

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