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Will France Invent a New Regulatory Framework to Counter Online Hate Speech?

Already under fire, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg meets with Emmanuel Macron, to discuss new internet regulation that will curb the spread of hate speech and violence online.

In a meeting with French President, Emmanual Macron, Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, discussed access to Facebook’s algorithms, to allow audits on its policies to combat hate speech. Ultimately, Macron seeks to build a regulatory framework that would be acceptable to the social media giant, and other social media companies – but nonetheless, result in greater accountability to politicians and the public about what’s posted online.

Macron wants the proposed legislation to serve as a model for Europe-wide management of social media networks. Other states have proposed similar legislation, some of which are tougher than France’s proposal.

Facebook has to prove that it’s working hard to limit violent extremism and hate speech shared online. Zuckerberg called the meeting encouraging and optimistic. “I am hopeful that it can become a model” that can be used “across the EU”, Zuckerberg said.

After the meeting with Macron, Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post, that he welcomed governments taking a more active role in drawing up regulations for the internet. Despite similar statements he’s made before, Zuckerberg has not been clear on what kind of regulation he favours.

The State of the Social Media Giant

In a bid to make France take the lead in tech regulation, Macron seeks to strike a balance between the United States’ freewheeling stance, and China’s digital iron wall.

France’s Parliament is debating legislation, that would give this new regulator the power to fine non-compliant tech companies up to 4 per cent of their global revenue, if they fail to remove hate-filled content from their networks.

“Our goal is to move (…) towards proper regulation”, a source close to the Finance Ministry said.

Just hours before the meeting with Zuckerberg, Macron received a 33-page report, co-written by a former head of public affairs for Google France; the conclusions of which called for more access to Facebook’s algorithms via an independent regulator, in order to provide increased oversight of the content posted online – particularly hate speech.


Regulators recommended instituting the legal requirement of “duty of care” for big social networks by way of moderating hate speech on their platforms. Copyright: Lightspring / shutterstock.com

The report is the result of French regulators having spent six months within the company, monitoring its policies. This was the first time the company had allowed outsiders such close access. In particular, the report calls for new laws allowing the government to investigate, and fine social networks that do not take responsibility for the same content that makes them money. So far, they remain unimpressed with Facebook’s self-regulation.

“The inadequacy and lack of credibility in the self-regulatory approach adopted by the largest platforms, justify public intervention to make them more responsible”, the report said. Simply declaring one’s company is transparent is not sufficient, it added.

Instead, the regulators recommended instituting the legal requirement of “duty of care” for big social networks, which means they should moderate hate speech on their platforms. However, they also stressed the need to respect freedom of expression, albeit without going into detail about how Facebook should balance those responsibilities.

The regulators noted that their research only covered Facebook, not content shared on private chat groups, or encrypted apps, or in forums like 4chan or 8chan – which are increasingly popular with both laypeople and criminals, as well as extremists concerned about privacy.

There has been some pushback against the idea of such regulation, however. French lawmaker Laetitia Avia, a member of Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party,  told FRANCE 24, “the government has been working mostly on the repression and prevention of hate speech”. She continued, “The bill proposes […] that the French broadcast regulator, the CSA, could evolve, and also do digital regulation.”

“There is a big problem about the hegemony of such big companies that rule all the digital area today”, said Avia. “Because what users really need here is protection”, she added. “And I think they [ie, Facebook] have the money and the people they need [to make] this fight against hatred a priority.”

In contrast, in response to the report, Facebook’s vice president for policy, Richard Allan, echoed Zuckerberg’s positive response: “The report sets out a path towards a new model for content regulation that has the potential to be both effective and workable.”

“It would allow platforms to develop innovative solutions to keep their users safe, while being clearly accountable to a regulator for how well they do this.”

The issue is one that concerns many countries across the EU and the world. The leaders of France and New Zealand will meet in Paris this week, for a summit to seek bans on showing violent extremist and terrorist content online.

Under Fire

The timing of the meeting comes right after former Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, called for the social media giant to break up into smaller companies. This is coupled by a round of heavy criticism from politicians, and the public, for Facebook’s failure to quickly remove live footage of the shooting attack in Christchurch, New Zealand; along with a generally laissez-faire attitude towards hate-speech on its platform.

The platform is also under fire for its inability to curb the spread of disinformation – particularly in the run-up to European Parliament elections – where it has been accused of endangering democracy. There are also concerns for its security lapses and data-sharing, particularly with regards to user data.

The lengthy opinion piece in the New York Times expressed Hughes’ concerns that the company was too powerful, and was suffocating innovation. He also bemoaned Facebook’s “slow response to Russian agents, violent rhetoric, and fake news”.

“We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well-intentioned the leaders of these companies may be. Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American”, wrote Hughes.

However, Facebook, Inc. – which also owns WhatsApp Messenger, and Instagram – immediately rejected the notion to break up into separate companies, even as US lawmakers agitated for the Department of Justice to launch an anti-trust investigation. This would be a particularly tough proposal, as it means the government would have to take the company to court – and win. Breaking up companies is rare, but not unheard of: it is precisely what happened with Standard Oil and AT&T. Facebook, however, said that instead of an anti-trust suit, the focus should be on regulating the internet – precisely the proposal Zuckerberg discussed with Macron.

“Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company”, Facebook spokesman Nick Clegg said in a statement. “Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet. That is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg has called for.”

In an interview with France 2, Zuckerberg said, “My main reaction is that what he’s proposing we do, isn’t going to do anything to help.” In fact, he argued that Facebook’s size is of benefit to both users and democracy.

“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to invest billions of dollars a year – like we are – in building up really advanced tools, to fight election interference”, Zuckerberg said. “Our budget for safety this year is bigger than the whole revenue of our company was, when we went public earlier this decade”, he added. “A lot of that is because we’ve been able to build a successful business that can now support that.”

“We need new rules for the internet that will spell out the responsibilities of companies, and those of governments. That is why we want to work with the team of President Macron. We need a public process.”

However, critics say the company’s new pivot to privacy and private messaging, which will introduce more encrypted communications, will, in fact, restrict Facebook’s ability to police propaganda, hate speech, and abusive behaviour.

Some lawmakers have admitted that Facebook’s bid to buy WhatsApp, should not have been approved, and others have vowed to force the company to break up. Democratic Senator, Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking the nomination for the 2020 presidential election, has promised to do just that.  On Twitter, she wrote that “Today’s big tech companies have too much power – over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private info for profit, hurt small businesses, and stifled innovation. It’s time to #BreakUpBigTech.”

Both Democratic and  Republican US senators have also called for the Federal Trade Commission to impose harsher penalties and more restrictions on Facebook’s business practices.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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