Europe has a big hate speech problem. In fact, many of its states aren’t entirely sure what hate speech is.
Germany has been the most proactive of all European countries in venting its intention to fight damaging material, which has surged in the wake of ISIS’ rise and a populist wave that has spread across the continent.
Berlin’s Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG, or ‘network enforcement law’ in English) was passed at the end of last summer, and came into force early October. Sites that do not remove what the law deems “obviously illegal” material face a €50 million ($62m) fine.
But the law has been criticized for its ambiguity, with opposers saying that its lax definition of hate speech could pave the way for government censorship and repression of free speech.
Likewise a British government plan to nip ISIS propaganda in the bud via a machine learning algorithm it claims can detect 94% of material with 99.99% accuracy. Red Herring believes critics of the platform to have been short-sighted. But in Europe, where attitudes to free speech vary from nation to nation – and rarely mirror that of the United States – such resistance often results in slow political action.
At a summit in Monaco last week this publication’s reporter saw the difficulty of curtailing free speech firsthand. At a meeting of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation in Monaco political and academic leaders grappled with the problem of hate speech, and how it creates a natural collision between safety and free speech.
“What is illicit,” asked renowned human rights lawyer Dan Shefet. “What do we take down?” Shefet added that while it is easy to find consensus to remove videos of beheadings and other atrocities, it is tougher, legally, to ban videos of people holding guns, or children playing in the rubble of vanquished cities, which equally attempt to draw young netizens toward the barbarism of Daesh.
One thing the experts almost unilaterally agreed upon is that Internet service providers (ISPs) and the “big four” of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – known in Brussels corridors by the acronym GAFA – should do more to pull their weight and prevent harmful material from reaching our computer screens.
What that effort would entail, however, is uncertain. And while Silicon Valley’s giants continue to evade major European courts on matters of tax and trust, it is unlikely an added threat will convince them to change their ways.
It is surely the job of European governments and the EU, therefore, to show GAFA it is a force to be reckoned with. Real sanctions, whether pecuniary or otherwise, could shake the industry into accepting European boundaries of free speech far outside that in their native US.
A recent move to tax companies on profits, and avoid tax-shifting schemes that have cost states billions, is a good first step. It may be the stick Brussels needs, before it can offer carrots to corporations on matters of hate speech.
Until then expect countries to find novel, if flawed, ways to combat the vast tide of digital content produced each hour. Hate, it seems, is going nowhere. Neither is the debate over hate speech.