In May, 2020, France’s National Assembly passed a bill aimed at regulating online hate speech – but what passed into law just two months later looked nothing like the proposal the government had initially hoped to put in place.
The legislation ran into the same type of resistance that these efforts have been meeting from free-speech advocates around the world. In the case of France, however, the decisive blow was delivered by the courts.
Among other things, the French Constitutional Council struck down a provision that would oblige social-media companies to remove hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours of a complaint. The court found this to be a breach of the right to freedom of expression and opinion.
Because the government was planning to establish a serious financial penalty (up to $1.7-million) for any company that didn’t take down the offensive content in the allotted time under the law, the court felt this might compel some platform operators to be risk-averse and take down material that was flagged as dangerous but ultimately didn’t meet a hate-speech threshold. In other words, the threat of a fine would incite a form of self-censorship.
As a result, the legislation was defanged of many of its major consequences when it became law in July, 2020.
Now, Canada’s federal government is making its own foray into this realm. Ottawa is expected to introduce hate-speech legislation before Parliament rises later this month. With an election widely expected in the fall, however, any new bill will likely die on the order paper. Meantime, groups on both sides of the hate speech-free speech debate will be able to hone their arguments for the day it’s reintroduced, should the Liberals get that opportunity down the road.
Canadians have bore witness to the dangers of online hate. It was a factor in the murder of six men at a mosque in Quebec City in 2017, and in killings around the world, most notably the slaughter of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, two years ago. Those are some of the incidents that have garnered broad attention. But online hate is everywhere, comes in all forms and targets many different groups.
And it’s beyond time that we, as a country, did something about it.
That is not to say that anything about introducing laws to safeguard us from this evil is easy. (Though in theory, you would think it should be.) There are legitimate concerns that such laws could be so all-encompassing in scope they put excessive discretion in the hands of government, and before you know it, we’re talking a redux of George Orwell’s 1984.
But to the extent this might happen – especially in the early days under a hypothetical new hate-speech regime – it is worth it. Avoiding the matter until you come up with language that makes all sides happy would be folly. Who knows how many more men (and to a lesser extent women) will be radicalized online in the meantime. If other governments’ efforts are any indication, what matters is that the work begins now.
Indeed, the French had modelled much of their original online hate bill on what the Germans passed into law in 2018, amid great pushback from free-speechers. But Angela Merkel’s government prevailed. Now, any company that doesn’t remove “obviously illegal” material within 24 hours can face a penalty of up to $73-million, proving that Germany’s government is serious about cracking down on hate, no doubt motivated by the disturbing rise of far-right extremist groups in the country.
For his part, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has indicated that the legislation the federal government introduces will compel online operators to monitor and remove material deemed illegal in a “timely manner” or risk facing a fine. What “timely manner” means remains to be seen; the same goes for the type of penalty platform operators could face. But it has to be a number that means something.
The proliferation of those holding radical views shaped by a broader white nationalist movement should concern us all. It is a mortal danger to civil society and we must insist that any means by which these thoughts and ideas are being given broad exposure be brought under intense scrutiny and control.
It is no longer good enough to let social-media companies police themselves; that’s clearly not working. That’s why governments need to step into the breach – fraught as that may be.
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