How Web Giants' Adoption of EU Rules Seeks to Rein In Hate Speech

 
 
By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2016-06-01
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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    How Web Giants' Adoption of EU Rules Seeks to Rein In Hate Speech
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    How Web Giants' Adoption of EU Rules Seeks to Rein In Hate Speech

    Some of the biggest Web companies have agreed to follow the EU's code of conduct to help snuff out hate speech. Here's a look at the implications of the agreement.
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    Firstly, Who Are the Players?
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    Firstly, Who Are the Players?

    Some of the world's largest Internet companies have agreed to conform to the European Union's code of conduct, including Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook. Google also joined the parade with YouTube. Interestingly, Google has yet to add its other services to the mix.
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    They Claim They Were Already Doing This
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    They Claim They Were Already Doing This

    In addition to removing offending content within 24 hours, the companies have promised to continually monitor posts to ensure there are no violations to the EU's code of conduct. However, all of the companies say they've already been doing that and have been deleting hate speech as required in Germany and elsewhere for quite some time. The agreement with the EU, then, is simply a formal acknowledgment of previous practices, they say. It's unknown whether the EU sees it that way.
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    The Web Companies Expect to Avoid Fines
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    The Web Companies Expect to Avoid Fines

    Perhaps one of the biggest reasons the companies signed the agreement was to avoid fines. Previously, the European Union said it would step in with possible fines on companies that didn't remove content. By signing the EU agreement, the companies can now say that they are in compliance and therefore should not be subject to fines for failing to comply.
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    How to Determine What Content Is Offensive
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    How to Determine What Content Is Offensive

    One of the major implications of this deal is just how the companies will define the line between hate speech and free speech. After a potentially offending item is found, Facebook, Twitter and the rest will need to determine whether content in question actually violates the EU's code of conduct or their own terms of use. Of course, such an evaluation is subjective, so that might cause some differences between the companies and the EU. Image 4: Please use this image:
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    Different Countries Have Different Views
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    Different Countries Have Different Views

    It's also worth noting that the European Union is a collective of different countries with different regulations and views on what's offensive and what's not. It's entirely possible that speech that's viewed as hateful in one region in the EU isn't so offensive in another region. Maneuvering through that minefield won't be easy for the companies involved.
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    Companies Will Monitor Content Worldwide
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    Companies Will Monitor Content Worldwide

    The agreement extends to content worldwide. So, if a person says something outside the eurozone that is viewed as hate speech in the eurozone, the content would still need to be removed. The companies will need to monitor content worldwide to ensure it doesn't offend people in Europe.
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    What About Everyone Else?
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    What About Everyone Else?

    Whether these moves will be enough to actually affect the incidence of hate speech is a topic of debate across the eurozone. While Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are some of the largest Web venues where hate speech can appear, they are by no means the only places. There are a multitude of forums, social networks and Web pages where people can post hate speech. Even if hate speech is removed from the most prominent forums, the purveyors of hate can always go somewhere else to post their invective.
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    The Companies Say They Don't Want to Be Web Censors
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    The Companies Say They Don't Want to Be Web Censors

    These companies' decision to abide by the EU's code of conduct has raised the ire of some digital rights activists, who say that it could violate free speech. To sidestep such controversy, the companies say they are in no way in favor of censorship and will continue to allow users to post their true feelings. They did, however, say that when a post is clearly meant to hurt another, it should be removed. Whether that argument will allay anyone's fears remains to be seen.
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    There's an Educational Component
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    There's an Educational Component

    In addition to removing offensive content, the technology companies say they will create their own educational content to fight hate, including promoting "counter-narratives" that take aim at hate speech. Twitter, Facebook and the others also said they will launch educational campaigns to help people understand the true nature of their words and why they could be hurtful.
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    Corporate Executives Could Face Jail Time
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    Corporate Executives Could Face Jail Time

    EU officials have said the executives of companies that don't comply with the agreement could face sanctions beyond cash fines. If the EU decides that certain content should be banned but a Web company fails to take action, EU law stipulates that it could send company executives to jail for at least one year, though the term could be substantially longer. This stipulation raises the prospects of serious legal battles if there are disagreements over what constitutes hateful speech.
 

On May 31, several top social networking, search and cloud computing companies, including Facebook and Twitter, announced that they had signed a pact with the European Union to follow its online code of conduct. The decision will ensure that hate speech posted online to their sites will be removed within 24 hours and could help European countries deal with what some call "free speech" on the Internet. But the Web has also become a conduit for anti-Semitism, cyber-bullying, "body shaming," gender bashing and hate of every stripe. In recent months, the European Union has been forced to deal with racism in the face of a refugee crisis and threats of terrorism, prompting its regulators to warn big Web companies that they will be fined if they don't remove offensive content. The technology companies say they will conform to the EU's rules and address these issues, but to what extent is unknown. This slide show covers the implications of the agreement and what the Internet might look like now that Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and the others are officially saying they are onboard with the EU's provisions.

 
 
 
 
 
Don Reisinger is a freelance technology columnist. He started writing about technology for Ziff-Davis' Gearlog.com. Since then, he has written extremely popular columns for CNET.com, Computerworld, InformationWeek, and others. He has appeared numerous times on national television to share his expertise with viewers. You can follow his every move at http://twitter.com/donreisinger.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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