PARIS — France adopted a law against online hate speech Wednesday that will target Silicon Valley giants amid controversy surrounding the lawmaker in charge of the bill.
After months of debate, the lower house of Parliament adopted the controversial legislation, which will require platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to remove flagged hateful content within 24 hours and flagged terrorist propaganda within one hour. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to €1.25 million.
The law, which echoes similar rules already in place in Germany, piles more pressure on Silicon Valley firms to police millions of daily posts in Europe’s two most populous countries.
Underscoring its importance to President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party, the bill was the first piece of legislation not linked to the coronavirus pandemic to come up for a vote since France imposed a lockdown in mid-March.
“During the lockdown, hate speech online has increased … We can no longer rely on the platforms’ goodwill. [The law] is the first brick of this new platform regulation paradigm,” Junior Digital Affairs Minister Cédric O told the National Assembly ahead of the vote.
“This law is an attack on freedom of expression, and is also legally weak” — Senator Bruno Retailleau of Les Républicains
However, its passing was somewhat overshadowed by claims against its rapporteur, MP Laetitia Avia. According to a report by investigative website Mediapart, published on the evening before the vote, five former assistants accused the lawmaker of harassment and of herself having made racist, homophobic and sexist comments. Avia has denied the allegations and said she would press charges for “defamation.”
During the debate, the allegations were not mentioned, except by O who defended the lawmaker. “To imply that she could be racist or homophobic makes absolutely no sense,” he said.
Pushback and controversy
France’s decision to press ahead with the law days after a lockdown lifted showed that Paris has not lost its thirst for regulating the tech industry.
While other flagship proposals such as the pension reform have been postponed indefinitely, Culture Minister Franck Riester said earlier this month that France would still transpose into national law by the end of the year an EU copyright reform that also targets Silicon Valley giants.
The hate speech legislation itself, which targets search engines as well as social media companies, has been the source of plenty of controversy. Online digital rights groups, tech companies, opposition parties have all criticized the initiative, and the Senate has led an effort to water it down by deleting the systematic deadline for removing content.
Opponents argued in particular that the law would lead to lawful content being taken down and would hand too much power to the companies charged with making decisions on what content is considered “obviously unlawful.”
“This law is an attack on freedom of expression, and is also legally weak,” Senator Bruno Retailleau, a member of the conservative Les Républicains party, wrote in a tweet, adding that his party would refer the law to the Constitutional Council.
The European Commission has also voiced criticism, writing to the French government in November to ask for the legislation to be postponed. The EU executive argued that Paris should wait for its own planned rules on platforms, the Digital Services Act, to pass to set a common EU-wide standard on policing illegal content online. Brussels also said the French text might not comply with EU law.
France brushed those concerns aside.
“Rest assured that we will make sure the Digital Services Act is ambitious enough,” O told MPs Wednesday. “To be able to lean on the experience of a national arsenal will be a precious asset to weigh in on the discussions,” he added. He said the government would present implementation decrees in the coming weeks.
In the final vote, MPs also green-lit an amendment that forces platforms to take down flagged terrorist propaganda and child sexual abuse material within one hour, moving ahead before similar legislation at EU level is finalized.
“It’s the police that gets to decide the criteria to censor a website” — Digital rights NGO La Quadrature
EU institutions are currently discussing a draft regulation with a one-hour removal timeline for terrorist content, but negotiations in Brussels are stuck.
Before the vote, digital rights NGO La Quadrature urged citizens to try to convince MPs to reject the text, arguing the hate speech law had now been transformed into an anti-terrorism arsenal that gives the police unchecked power.
“It’s the police that gets to decide the criteria to censor a website,” it said, adding that in French law, the notion of terrorism was broad enough to be used against demonstrators.
Elisa Braun contributed reporting.
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