PARIS - French lawmakers have begun debating tough new legislation requiring tech and social media companies to swiftly remove online hate speech or risk huge fines. The bill fits broader global efforts to curb heinous and violent discourse on the internet — seen after this year's mass shootings in New Zealand. But some fear the legislation may spark censorship.
The bill gives tech companies just 24 hours to remove racist and other hateful online content or risk fines of up to 4 percent of their global revenue. Users would be able to click a special button under offensive content to flag it.
Leading the effort is French deputy Laetitia Avia, whose parents come from Togo. In interviews like this one on French TV, she describes being the victim of a daily deluge of online racist insults—and says social media networks aren’t doing enough to stop them.
France’s digital affairs minister, Cedric O, says the government hopes to drastically lower online hate content. The bill is similar to German legislation that has received mixed reviews. Other countries, including Britain and Australia, have imposed or are debating stricter regulations against extremism on the internet.
Speaking on French radio, Minister O said the French bill is no silver bullet. No government has been able to eradicate online abuse. But he believes the legislation will lay a good base, and can be revised as needed.
France’s centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, has prioritized cracking down on hateful and violent web content. Following the terrorist attacks in New Zealand, he helped push through a non-binding so-called Christchurch accord in May to curb online extremism. The United States did not sign it, citing free speech concerns.
Some experts have similar fears when it comes to this new bill.
Prominent media lawyer Christophe Bigot told VOA the bill may lead to censorship, because tech companies may favor removing any suspect content to avoid heavy fines. He doesn’t think new laws are needed — but instead, more judges to apply existing anti-hate speech laws.
Like Bigot, Loic Riviere also has concerns. He is general secretary of Tech in France, which represents 400 French and international software and internet companies.
Riviere says he agrees with the bill’s broad goals. Online hate has become massive, he says — too big for the justice system alone to handle. But he says the legislation opens up too many gray areas, and the 24-hour deadline is too short for removing hateful content. Tech companies will need government support to be effective.
France’s lower house will vote on the bill next week before the Senate takes it up. The measure could become law in a few months.