Truth about free speech in France

Truth about free speech in France
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An opinion column has claimed that France has now become one of the “greatest international threats” to free speech. The French and European government efforts to combat hateful speech, including new proposed legislation that will require online platforms to promptly remove illegal material, prompted this brutal assessment. It would be easy to underline how absurd this claim is when French and European citizens enjoy, by all accounts, the highest levels of personal freedom and free speech in the world, or how disgraceful it is when thousands of people around the world are arrested, tortured, or executed for speaking what is on their minds.

However, the underlying conversation about free speech protections is essential. Democracies around the world are confronted with the same set of issues in modern times. These include the rise of racist and antisemitic speech, disinformation campaigns, terrorist organizations recruiting by promoting radical ideologies, public distrust in media and governments, and the unchecked power of internet platforms to control online content. While views legitimately differ on the appropriate responses, we cannot simply sit on our hands and whine about what others do to tackle this.

First, the promotion of hate speech and other violent extremism directly impacts our liberties and security. It translates into our lives by fueling public discord, terrorist attacks, and hate crimes, thus undermining our democracies. All available data point to an increase of racist, antisemitic, and other hate crimes. The threat level from jihadist terrorism remains high. We know that numerous hate crimes and terrorist attacks, including in Pittsburgh and Charleston, have been inspired by online content. The terrorist attack in Christchurch was designed to be disseminated across internet platforms and to encourage similar actions around the world. Some recent studies indicate that those platforms are now used as an instrument for those wishing to trigger hate crimes or terrorist attacks.


Second, there is growing consensus to combat violent extremist content among governments, companies, and civil society. Some of the major industry figures feel they have “too much power over speech” and call for democratic regulation. Indeed, France and New Zealand initiated the Christchurch Call, an action plan seeking to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online to stop the internet being used as a tool for terrorists.” The major technology companies have pledged to “take transparent, specific measures seeking to prevent the upload of terrorist and violent extremist content and to prevent its dissemination” in a way that is “consistent with human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Third, Europe stands at the forefront to combat disinformation, along with terrorist and violent extremist content. In 2016, the European Commission developed a code of conduct with Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. Among other critical provisions, these companies have agreed to “review the majority of the content flagged within 24 hours and remove or disable access to hate speech content if necessary.” French Parliament is now considering legislation that would make those measures both more effective and in line with the freedom of expression guaranteed by law. The purpose is precisely to ensure that the same norms will be applicable online and in real life, that all the decisions taken by internet platforms stand on transparent and legal grounds, and that they can be challenged within a court of justice under due process.

Fourth, we must each acknowledge that conceptions about freedom of expression differ among democracies. Every country in the world admits that some limitations to free speech may be necessary to protect other freedoms and human dignity. For historical and cultural reasons, European democracies have always conceived this balance a bit differently than the United States. For instance, the public promotion of nazism, racism, and antisemitism are considered illegal in most, if not all, European countries.

Finally, this is not about censorship, but rather about democracy. Private companies make decisions every day that affect our freedom, with little transparency or judicial control. Why should private companies define rules over free speech rather than abide by our constitutions and the laws voted by our governments? In a democracy, we should rather ensure that the rule of law is fully applicable to our citizens, including on the internet.

This conversation can only go two ways. We can consider any differing approach as a threat. The outcome will be diverging norms and internet platforms that arbitrarily define the rules curtailing our freedom, all with limited effect on crimes and terrorist attacks. Ultimately, the rules that are effectively enforced will be those defined by undemocratic regimes, at the expense of civil liberties. Alternatively, we can engage in an effort to find common ground and build a democratic international framework ensuring that the internet is not a lawless space where hate can thrive. It will not be an easy task, but it is certainly achievable if we start by recognizing that our democracies share the same commitment to freedom of expression.

Quentin Lopinot is a visiting fellow in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are his own.