Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google, and the European Commission have created and agreed upon a code of conduct that outlines how they should combat illegal hate speech on their platforms.
It means that the companies involved must review the majority of valid requests for the removal of illegal hate speech in the 28 member states of the European Union in less than 24 hours. It also calls on tech companies to be more transparent about the systems they have in place to review illegal hate speech, and “educate and raise awareness with their users about the types of content not permitted under their rules and community guidelines.”
Facebook’s Monika Bickert said that there was “no place for hate speech” on the 1.6 billion-strong platform. “We remain committed to letting the tweets flow,” said Karen White, Twitter’s head of public policy for Europe. “However, there is a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate.”
Is there? That distinction has proved something of a tightrope for these companies:
- In November 2015, Facebook’s top executive in Germany was investigated for allegedly facilitating the incitement of racial hatred after a spike in anti-immigrant posts on the platform. In December 2015, Facebook, Google, and Twitter agreed with the German government that they would delete hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours.
- Facebook has come under repeated complaints for its vague policies on nude content. Its updated guidelines published last year excluded posts that showed breastfeeding, but exposed buttocks were still off-limits. Earlier this year, a French teacher sued the platform for de-activating his account after he posted a photo of a 19th-century painting that features a vagina.
- Amid a series of controversies—resulting in an admission from then CEO Dick Costolo that Twitter “suck[s] at dealing with abuse”—the company has revised its safety policies multiple times over the past several years to explicitly cover revenge porn, harassment, threats, and inciting harm.
Another dimension to an already gray area is that hate speech laws vary across Europe. Take denying the deaths of six million during the Holocaust, for example. In Germany, France, Poland, and Belgium, Holocaust denial is illegal. In the UK, it is not. And Italy has been debating (paywall) whether to criminalize it for several years now.
This adds another tricky layer to how the code will be enforced in member states. ”This agreement fails to properly define what ‘illegal hate speech’ is and does not provide sufficient safeguards for freedom of expression,” said Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of the London-based free-speech group Index on Censorship. “[The agreement] will simply drive unpalatable ideas and opinions underground where they are harder to police—or to challenge.”
(Disclosure: I worked at Index on Censorship from 2011-13.)