Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter crack down on online hate speech in EU

The companies will hide illegal online hate speech from EU users within 24 hours of notification

Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter have agreed to hide illegal online hate speech from European Union users of their platforms within 24 hours of receiving official notification of it.

It's a response to the challenge of ensuring that online platforms do not offer opportunities for illegal online hate speech to spread virally, according to the European Commission, which pushed for the agreement.

The companies have agreed to create a clear process for receiving and reviewing notifications about illegal hate speech on their platforms, and to review "the majority of valid notifications" in under 24 hours, removing or disabling access to the content if necessary.

European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Vĕra Jourová welcomed the commitment. "The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech. Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and racist use to spread violence and hatred," she said.

The new code of conduct will help ensure that the Internet "remains a place of free and democratic expression, where European values and laws are respected," she said.

Not everyone is happy with the move, though.

Two Brussels-based civil rights lobby groups, Access Now and European Digital Rights (EDRi), have even pulled out of the European Commission's "EU Internet Forum," a talking shop set up to discuss the problems of online hate speech and the promotion of terrorism, in protest at the content of the agreement and at the exclusion of NGOs, or civil society organizations, from the drafting of it.

The groups say that, under the agreement, the companies have promised to ban content from their services that is already legally banned.

The companies, meanwhile, are promising to build a special channel for some organizations — law enforcers or NGOs — to report offending material in bulk. The agreement also calls on companies to educate reporting organizations on what is allowed under their terms of service, something the campaign groups feel puts the companies' own code of conduct before the law.

European Digital Rights Executive Director Joe McNamee thinks the Commission has its priorities wrong, and that illegal content should not only be blocked, but that its creators should be prosecuted. "It is ironic that the Commission is threatening to take member states to court for failing to implement EU law on racism and xenophobia while it is persuading companies like Google and Facebook to sweep offenses under the carpet," he said via email.

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