Rights Advocates Blast EU and Tech Firms' Hate Speech Code

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Digital rights and free speech advocates are up in arms over Tuesday's announcement of an agreement between the European Commission and four leading U.S. social media firms -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft -- on a Code of Conduct designed to crack down on hate speech.

The companies have agreed to adopt a system that allows users to flag illegal hate speech and incitement to violence. They also agreed to review flagged posts within 24 hours and to take appropriate action, such as removing them or blocking access.

The announcement comes six months after terrorist suicide attacks in Paris killed 130 people and injured hundreds of others, and just two months after terrorist bombings in Brussels took 32 lives and injured hundreds more.

Governments in Europe and the U.S., which are engaged in an air and low-intensity ground war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, have urged technology companies to help crack down on the use of social media for recruitment, propaganda, fundraising and other uses by terrorist groups.

"The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech," said Vera Jourova, EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality. "Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalize young people, and racists use to spread violence and hatred."

Facebook, Twitter and Google, which owns YouTube, last year agreed to a plan to remove hate speech from their social media sites in Germany within 24 hours of its being reported. That agreement came in the wake of a rise in xenophobic postings as refugees from Africa and the Middle East began streaming into Europe by the thousands.

Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter already had announced a crackdown on speech that encourages terrorism following last year's San Bernardino shooting, which reportedly was inspired by ISIS but not directly organized by the group.

"Hateful conduct has no place on Twitter and we will continue to tackle this issue head-on, alongside our partners in industry and civil society," said Karen White, head of public policy for Europe.

Facebook, Microsoft and Google officials offered similar expressions of support, promising that offending content would be reviewed swiftly, and deleted or blocked pending substantiation of complaints.

Open technology and privacy groups have widely condemned the agreement, however, raising concerns over a lack of transparency in its development, and contending that it leaves the door open for censorship within Europe.

European Digital Rights and Access Now said they would withdraw from any further discussions with officials on the plan and expressed no confidence in the Code of Conduct based on its development process thus far.

No outside civil society organizations were invited to participate in discussions on terrorism, the groups maintained, although several were allowed to participate in talks on online hate speech. The groups were excluded completely from participation in the EC's talks with technology companies, which led to the Code of Conduct released earlier this week.

Although Access Now was not part of the discussions, it was asked to endorse the process, said policy analyst Estelle Masse.

Access Now would consider sitting down at the table if the process were changed to include more transparent discussions with outside groups, she told the E-Commerce Times.

"EFF is deeply disappointed in the crafting of this code of practice," said Danny O'Brien, international director of the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

"With it, the EU companies have rubber-stamped the widespread removal of allegedly illegal content, based only on the flagging by third parties," he told the E-Commerce Times.

The policy does not take into account that whether speech is considered illegal depends on the jurisdiction where it is seen, O'Brien pointed out.

Further, voluntary agreements such as this one might be misused by parties outside of Europe, he added. "This is a dangerous precedent, as any wider discussion between the EU and international human rights groups would have revealed. Civil society was systematically excluded from negotiations over this code of conduct, and it shows."

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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