France & the EU Mull Over New Online Censorship Rules

France is proposing new legislation that will make social media sites like Facebook and Twitter partially responsible for terrorist content posted on their sites.

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Photo: Jean-Marc Ayrault / Flickr

President Francois Hollande said the new draft law, set to be presented next month, will make social media sites “accomplices” if they do not block terrorism-related content from their sites.

Bloomberg reports that France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve will be traveling to the States soon to discuss the draft law with major tech companies, none of which have commented on the French proposed law in detail.

“The big operators, and we know who they are, can no longer close their eyes if they are considered accomplices of what they host,” said President Hollande while speaking at a World War II memorial event earlier this week.

“We must act at the European and international level to define a legal framework so that Internet platforms which manage social media be considered responsible, and that sanctions can be taken” he said.

The comments come weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, which brought the issue of online censorship and surveillance under the microscope once again. Hollande made similar remarks last week in Davos at the World Economic Forum.

The comments from Hollande have come in for strong criticism from online privacy rights and censorship commentators.

“If this law passes, internet services will have no choice but to seek to proactively censor all sorts of speech just to avoid liability,” wrote Techdirt’s Timothy Geigner. “It’s the exact opposite of the systems and policies that made the internet such a welcome home to free expression.”

Too Much Content

Google responded to some of these theories on Wednesday, telling a European Parliamentary meeting that policing the vast amount of content on YouTube for specific terrorist content was difficult to flag before the fact.

Google Public Policy Manager Verity Harding said that there were 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. “[T]o pre-screen those videos before they are uploaded would be like screening a phone call before it’s made,” she said.

Gilles De Kerchove, EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator, suggested that EU member states establish task forces to monitor online content for terrorist threats. “We have to help them, and refer to them, and signal content,” he said. “Each member state should have a unit with people trained to do that.”

“We can contemplate legislation but I suspect it would be an awfully monumental exercise,” De Kerchove said.

Free Speech Post-Charlie Hebdo

The conversation around free speech and censorship online has intensified since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with France now proposing new online laws and debates around mass surveillance sparking up again.

Many tech and social media companies have spoken out in strong favor of protecting free speech and privacy, especially after David Cameron’s anti-encryption stance.

However, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg came under fire this week over claims that images of the Prophet Muhammad were censored in Turkey, with the social network bowing to pressure as it is a country that Facebook is keen to expand in. The block resulted from a local court order in Ankara.

This comes weeks after Zuckerberg stood firmly in favor of free speech just after the Paris attacks.

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“Sweeping promises are all well and good, but Facebook’s record doesn’t entirely back it up,” said the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey.

A person familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak publicly confirmed to the Post that Facebook had acted to “block content so that it’s no longer visible in Turkey following a valid legal request.” In the past, social media companies that failed to comply with such requests — including Twitter and YouTube — have been blocked in the country, entirely.