Civil Liberties

Social Media Censorship Gaining New Ground in U.K., France

British lawmakers call for banning offensive speakers from social media entirely while France continues hate speech prosecutions



Just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris inspired a global show of support for free speech, French and British politicians are contemplating and creating new ways to suppress it.  

In the U.K., a new report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism (an informal group comprised of members of the House of Lords and House of Commons) recommends stepping up criminal prosecution of people who make offensive comments on social media. The report glowingly notes how British police "helped to secure a prison term for the man that sent an antisemitic tweet to (Parliament member) Luciana Berger" and revives the idea of issuing speech suppression orders to people whose statements are deemed hateful. Such orders, championed by U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May, would ban individuals from posting to social media or participating in various online venues entirely.

"There is an allowance in the law for banning or blocking individuals from certain aspects of internet communication in relation to sexual offences," the anti-semitism report notes.

Informal feedback we have received from policy experts indicates that this is a potential area of exploration for prosecutors in relation to hate crime. If it can be proven in a detailed way that someone has made a considered and determined view to exploit various online networks to harm and perpetrate hate crimes against others then the accepted principles, rules and restrictions that are relevant to sex offences must surely apply.

The report also expresses hope that European countries will work together to censor social media speech:

… it is beholden on the European community to arrive at a common understanding on the dangers posed by internet hate and to plan accordingly. … We believe UK officials should be seeking to mainstream discussion of social media into such existing forums and that our contemporaries in the European Parliament should be considering these matters with some urgency. In addition, our police should be on a par with, if not leading European and indeed international counterparts in efforts to combat online hate crime. In order to be world leaders, our police must be properly resourced.

Unfortunately, other E.U. leaders probably don't need much coaxing. Last Wednesday, a French judge ordered comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala to pay the equivalent of $37,000 for posting "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly" to Facebook in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (Amedy Coulibaly killed five people, including a police officer, in a kosher grocery store.) In the past few weeks, French police have detained almost 70 people for hate speech, including a man who drunkenly shouted that police shot in the Charlie Hebdo attacks "deserved what they got;" he was sentenced to three months in prison.  

A new law that went into effect in France this week allows French police to shut down websites it deems to be promoting terrorism, without any sort of court order required. Emmanuel Pierrat, a French legal expert, writer, and activist, told Newsweek that he fears yet stricter speech restrictions are in the works, and this wil only exacerbate terrorist problems: 

"Things are not so perfect in this supposed liberal state. Just because this is not China or Saudi Arabia, we think we're safe."

He warns that the French government crackdown in the past few weeks has been the wrong response, and will be counter-effective in the long-run. "The main problem is the education of young people, and integration. Giving more money to the police to block websites is not the solution."

Pierrat is concerned that imprisoning increasing numbers of young people could result in French jails becoming breeding grounds for terrorism, as young offenders meet more hardline extremists. "If you send a young guy to these courts, you are giving them the chance to be converted by existing Islamists in the prisons. The problem will only get worse."

British lawyer and blogger Adam Wagner also worried about the affect of hate speech prosecutions on young people. He told Newsweek that U.K. hate speech laws are used frequently against teens and young adults, sending them to prison and potentially ruining their lives over careless statements posted to their Facebook walls. 

At The Independent, Grace Dent offers another reason to oppose prosecuting Twitter trolls: it doesn't work. "Better, more efficient ways to block and ignore prats on Twitter and Facebook … might make our individual lives a little smoother," she writes, but "asking the police and country courts to act as school monitor in the vast internet playground is unworkable."

I was grimly fascinated the other day to find out that one man who has targeted me on social media for years – him sending abuse, me quietly blocking without response – was arrested and charged for similar offences years ago. It hadn't slowed him down remotely. He, like many other offenders, clearly saw this arrest as a badge of honour. It increased his sense of self-identity as a brave speaker of truth.

As Dent continues, having hateful opinions is not a crime, and "it's not the police's job to make these people gentler, kind more empathetic folk with hobbies more rewarding than sitting indoors spewing hate." It is the police's job to prevent and prosecute actual instances of exploitation, oppression, and violence, which is generally not predicted by the use of an offensive Twitter hashtag. Governments from Bosnia to South Africa, however, are looking to the U.K. and other E.U. countries as role models on handling offensive social-media speech.