Monday, January 25

French Court Strikes Down Most of Online Hate Speech Law

PARIS — A top French court on Thursday struck down critical provisions of a law passed by France’s parliament last month to combat online hate speech, dealing a severe blow to the government’s effort to police internet content.

The court’s ruling comes as authorities around the world try to regulate what can be shared on vast internet platforms like Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, all American companies with attitudes toward free speech and government oversight that often differ from Europe’s.

The flagship provision in France’s new law, which was supported by President Emmanuel Macron’s government and sponsored by his party, created an obligation for online platforms to take down hateful content flagged by users within 24 hours. If the platforms failed to do so, they risked fines of up to 1.25 million euros, or about $1.4 million.

But the Constitutional Council, a French court that reviews legislation to ensure it complies with the French constitution, noted in its ruling on Thursday that the measure put the onus for analyzing content solely on tech platforms without the involvement of a judge, within a very short time frame, and with the threat of hefty penalties.

“Too often one makes bad laws with good intentions!” Philippe Bas, a right-wing Republican lawmaker in France’s Senate, said on Twitter.

One lobbying group that includes Google and Facebook in France said in a statement that it was “letting out a big sigh of relief after the ruling,” while La Quadrature du Net, a digital rights advocacy group — and fierce critic of those very tech giants — cried “Victory!” against a law that “organized an abusive censorship of the internet.”

Laetitia Avia, the lawmaker from Mr. Macron’s party who sponsored the bill in France’s lower house of Parliament, said in a statement on Thursday that she did not intend to “give up the fight,” and that the court’s ruling was a “road map to improve a plan that we knew was unprecedented and therefore perfectible.”

Strong anti-hate speech laws already exist in France, often with criminal penalties, but Ms. Avia and other supporters of the new law had argued that those rules, instituted before the emergence of social media platforms, held little sway online.

“Our message must be clear: what isn’t tolerated in public spaces mustn’t either on the internet, no more than we can let racist, anti-Semitic, LGBT-phobic, sexist comments proliferate online with impunity,” Ms. Avia said in her statement.

The French justice ministry said in a statement later on Thursday that the government was “studying the possibility of reworking” the hate speech measures by taking into account the court’s ruling.

France’s law was based in part on a similar one in Germany, where Facebook and other companies could face fines of up to 50 million euros if they systematically fail to remove “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours.

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