top of page

Why the EU should take US warnings about protecting free speech on online platforms seriously

Do good intentions always lead to the desired results? EU Member States rightly acknowledge the impact of online information on individuals and societies. The internet can connect different minds in many different and unprecedented ways, which has its advantages and disadvantages. One positive example occurred in Australia recently, where a tweet to Tesla’s Elon Musk led to a power challenge that may possibly secure sustainable energy for Southern Australia. [Mr Musk, if you are reading this, could you also please look into more sustainable batteries ­- for example, using sea salt instead of lithium? Please check Dr.Ten].

However, #regulation is normally based on negative examples, such as routine bullying and other misbehaviour or criminal behaviour (ranging from sextortion to terrorist propaganda or collusion). On the one hand, #EU Member States want to be able to track the #online activities of individuals, while on the other hand, they want individuals to be able to remain anonymous when active on online platforms (sometimes using very creative user names). Then, of course, we have the distribution of #FakeNews, which poses a specific risk to societies. It even ‘helped’ to persuade the UK to pull out of the EU and start the disaster called Brexit (#wheresmy350maweekboris).

In the Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online, online platforms have pledged to support the European Commission and EU Member States “in the effort to respond to the challenge of ensuring that online platforms do not offer opportunities for illegal online hate speech to spread virally.” US companies #Facebook, #Microsoft, #Twitter and #YouTube (#Google) are taking the lead in this. Furthermore, EU Member States have started to stimulate #factcheck initiatives. And Facebook plans to step up its efforts to fight fake news by sending more suspected hoax stories to fact checkers and publishing their findings online.

In the past, Facebook has been reluctant to take down potentially fake news stories, arguing that it does not wish to be an “arbiter of truth”. This is in line with statements made by US officials. For example, the current Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (#FCC) stated: “I am always concerned by the impulse to censor unpopular speech, whether at home or abroad.” In July, Senator Ted Cruz submitted questions at a confirmation hearing. Expressing the concerns of many other conservatives, he asked whether social networks have overreached themselves by removing unpopular political statements. All three FCC nominees (Democrats and Republicans) agreed with Senator Cruz that the monitoring by US tech companies of so-called hate speech in Europe raised potential concerns about those companies’ commitment to American #freespeech rights.

Germany is one of the leading EU Member States when it comes to the regulation of online platforms. Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD party) declared earlier this year: “Defamation and malicious gossip are not covered under freedom of speech.” Although these good intentions are commendable, we should be cautious and do everything in our power to prevent the emergence of a kind of #ThoughtPolice. What if one day an AfD minister were to make such a statement? As European Commissioner / VP Andrus Ansip puts it: “Fake news is bad, but the Ministry of Truth is even worse.”

It is also fair to ask whether the US and its current administration really is the champion of civil liberties. But that’s another story.

bottom of page