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16th Jun 2019

EU gives online platforms legal tool to justify takedowns

  • Social media users who think that their content has been taken down incorrectly, should have a means to appeal, the commission said (Photo: Daria Nepriakhina)

The European Commission adopted a legal text on Thursday (1 March) which gives online platforms like Facebook and Twitter guidelines on when and how to take down illegal content like hate speech or terrorist propaganda.

It follows previous measures, including a September 2017 strategy paper – a 'communication' in EU jargon – and dialogue with the internet companies.

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"There is no big difference between our communication and this recommendation," noted commission vice-president Andrus Ansip at a press conference on Thursday.

"But the difference is in the fact that a recommendation is a legal text. Our member states, also service providers they can use this legal text in possible court cases," said the former Estonian prime minister.

The recommendation, although it has no binding power of itself, included some more specific requirements. One was a call on companies to remove within one hour terrorist content that has been flagged by law enforcement authorities in a 'referral'.

"Given that terrorist content is typically most harmful in the first hour of its appearance online and given the specific expertise and responsibilities of competent authorities and Europol, referrals should be assessed and, where appropriate, acted upon within one hour, as a general rule," the recommendation stated.

Self-regulation?

The text, presented by no fewer than four EU commissioners, can be seen as something of a last chance for internet companies to make self-regulation work.

Security commissioner Julian King said the commission would monitor how the recommendation will play out in practice, and that the recommendation was about "sending a clear signal" to the internet companies.

"The voluntary approach is still our favourite approach," said King.

"One way or another – we need to meet the objectives we have set out today," he added.

Freedom of speech

The commissioners also stressed that the recommendation contained safeguards for protecting freedom of speech.

Users of platforms that have posted something which they believe is legal, should be able to appeal a company's decision to take down their content.

"They have to act. They have to explain why they took down this content," said Ansip.

It was for that reason that justice and consumers commissioner Vera Jourova added that she did not want 100 percent of flagged content automatically removed.

"There is some scope for doubt," said the Czech commissioner.

Her colleague Ansip reminded journalists that both he and Jourova had lived under socialist regimes which had effective censorship machines.

"We have to protect freedom of expression in Europe," said Ansip.

Germany

Ansip and Jourova indirectly criticised a recently adopted law in Germany, which demands social media sites remove "obviously illegal" posts quickly. If the companies don't, they face a potential €50m fine.

"There will be fine of €50m and of course the reaction of platforms is very simple. If they have some doubts then: down! out! down! and so on," said Ansip.

"That is why we proposed safeguards to protect freedom of speech," he added.

The Estonian commissioner noted that it was up to the German people to decide if the law should be amended, but that it did not appear to be ideal.

Jourova said she was "very curious about how the German law will work", but refrained from giving an assessment at the moment.

She did note that some in the IT sector told her that because of the possible sanction, the reflex is to delete verything, even if there are doubts.

"This is what I didn't want," she said - implying that the approach of the EU recommendation was better than the German 'Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz' -the "network enforcement law".

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