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European Policy, Free Expression, Open Internet, Privacy & Data

EU Tech Policy Brief: May 2019 Recap

Carla Farré Montel also contributed to this post.

This is the May 2019 recap issue of CDT’s monthly EU Tech Policy Brief. It highlights some of the most pressing technology and internet policy issues under debate in Europe, the U.S., and internationally, and gives CDT’s perspective on them.

France debates a proposal for online hate speech law 

In February, French President Macron announced a proposed law for tackling online hate speech. The proposal aims to streamline and accelerate the removal of “manifestly illegal” public content hosted by online platforms, encourage users to report hateful content on platforms, and pressure social networks to quickly provide law enforcement with identifying information about the author of an anti-Semitic or racist statement. Furthermore, social media platforms that fail to process reports of hateful content within 24 hours may be fined by up to 4 percent of their annual revenue.

Civil rights organizations including CDT have raised concerns about the risk that online platforms will be forced to over-remove content due to the threat of hefty fines. The proposal is scheduled for debate at the beginning of July, and could enter into force by September. 

French interim report on online platforms’ responsibility

On 10 May, the French Ministry of Digital Affairs released an interim mission report on the accountability of social media platforms for online behavior and content that may be considered harmful. While the report acknowledges social media’s importance in enabling citizens’ ability to express themselve, communicate, and obtain information, it also concludes that regulation is necessary to impose transparency and accountability obligations on platforms, and motivate them to assume more responsibility for the way they curate and manage content and enforce their terms of service. The report argues that any new regulation should preferably occur at the European level, and that regulations should apply based on where speech is viewed, not, as is currently the rule, based on where companies are headquartered (the country-of-origin principle).

Unlike the approach taken in the recent UK Government Online Harms White Paper, the French report is explicit about the need to avoid a regulatory authority making judgments about the legality and illegality of content. The report is a thought-provoking approach to tackling the online content moderation challenges being discussed across Europe and elsewhere — and in a way that may address free expression concerns more effectively than other similar initiatives. 

Facebook sued over “private censorship” by Polish NGO

On 7 May, the Polish civil society organization SIN (Spoleczna Inicjatywa Narkopolityki) filed a lawsuit against Facebook aimed at countering what it refers to as private censorship on the internet. SIN seeks to raise awareness about the responsibility of online platforms as “gatekeepers” of free expression online. The NGO argues that moderation is “necessary” to fight illegal and harmful content such as hate speech, but also considers the need to strike a balance with safeguarding the rights of individuals. They go on to say that the removal of online content has to be based on clear and accessible criteria, and that users must have the right to contest the removal decision made by platforms. They stress that their court case is meant to motivate social media companies to work on more transparent and less arbitrary methods of blocking and to protect the freedom of speech of users, something that CDT has long advocated for as a matter of corporate best practice. This type of case reflects widely held concerns with overbroad removal practices, and problems users can face when appealing decisions they find unjustified.

Tech companies and governments adopt the “Christchurch call” document on extremist and terrorist content

On 15 May, EU leaders and heads of global tech companies gathered in Paris to adopt a range of commitments on preventing the spread of terrorist and extremist content online. The “Christchurch call”, which follows the terrorist attack that occurred in New Zealand two months ago, is a three-page document co-signed by representatives of the leading social media platforms and seventeen heads of state. While the Call is an understandable reaction to a severe and traumatic act of terrorism and its online roots and aftermath, a joint statement by civil society groups stressed significant free expression and procedural issues with the Call. The statement echoes several points previously set out in a letter CDT co-signed on the EU Terrorist Content Online Regulation. 

The GDPR: First anniversary

Saturday 25 May marked the first anniversary of the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation. According to recent figures provided by the European Commission, 67 percent of Europeans have heard about the GDPR, and 57 percent know of the existence of a public authority in their country responsible for protecting their data rights. Besides that, almost100,000 privacy complaints have been filed with national data privacy regulators, although only a few of them have led to significant penalties, according to industry trade bodies. The regulation has set a new global standard in data protection. Since last year, many countries have approved comparable laws on data protection, and CDT is working on getting federal privacy legislation passed in the United States. Like GDPR, CDT’s proposal would provide a framework for digital privacy that focuses on individual rights. Our draft also sets reasonable limits on the use, collection, and sharing of personal information.

Implementation of the Copyright Directive

The Copyright Directive was published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 17 May and will enter into force on 7 June 2021. The implementation process is likely to raise the same controversial issues that characterized the Directive’s adoption. While France has already started to implement some of its provisions, the Polish Government announced that it had initiated a legal challenge against the Directive before the Court of Justice of the European Union. The Polish Government, which was among the opponents of the Directive in Council, along with Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden, tweeted that the Directive is “a disproportionate measure that fuels censorship and threatens freedom of expression.” CDT, along with 41 other organizations, addressed its concerns about the implementation of Article 17 (ex Article 13) in a joint letter to the European Commission.

OECD Principles on AI

On 22 May the OECD member countries approved its Council recommendation on Artificial Intelligence. This document promotes principles for developing artificial intelligence (AI) to be innovative, trustworthy, and respectful of human rights and democratic values. These AI standards, which aim to be practical and flexible enough to stand the test of time in this evolving field, also complement existing OECD guidelines in areas such as privacy, digital security risk management, and responsible business conduct. The release of this Council recommendation takes place just a few weeks after the European Commission’s Ethics Guidelines on Trustworthy AI report, which also advocate for legal, ethical, and robust standards for AI.

European Parliament Elections 2019

The European Parliament elections on 23-26 May resulted in a significant change to the political landscape, though less dramatic than many observers had expected. For the first time, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) no longer hold a combined majority. These groups will need to work with broader alliances on significant policy issues. Notably, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) made substantial gains, as did the Green Group. Eurosceptic parties, mostly on the political right, also won seats, but these gains were smaller than expected. The first challenge will be the appointment of several high-level positions in EU institutions, including the next President of the European Commission. The newly elected members of the European Parliament will form parliamentary groups in June and meet in the first plenary session in Strasbourg on 2 July. CDT is paying close attention to the outcome of the election, and what the impacts will be on technology policy in the EU going forward.