E.C., U.S. tech firms join forces to curb hate speech

May 31, 2016, 4:02 PM EDT
"Facebook burnout." (Source: mkhmarketing/flickr)
"Facebook burnout." (Source: mkhmarketing/flickr)

A fresh code of conduct for American social network companies in Europe is riling up free speech groups around the world. On Tuesday, the European Commission announced that it brokered an agreement with U.S. tech firms to help combat the dissemination of hate speech. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Microsoft have all promised to review reports of illegal hate speech across their platforms within 24 hours. If the reports are substantiated, the companies promise to remove or disable the speech in question.

Those four companies are referred to as "the IT Companies" in the following statement from the E.C. defining the measure:

The IT Companies also share the European Commission's and EU Member States' commitment to tackle illegal hate speech online. Illegal hate speech, as defined by the Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA of 28 November 2008 on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law and national laws transposing it, means all conduct publicly inciting to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. 

The ramifications of hate speech have taken on particular significance in Europe amid an ongoing and intensifying refugee and migrant crisis that has taken a toll on nearly every country on the continent. The volume of refugees heading to Europe’s shores is not lessening any time soon, and xenophobes often take to social media to unleash their frustration and damaging racial biases. The European Commission undoubtedly hopes that measures to stem hate speech will aid in the prevention of real-life gatherings of people who seek to violently stall the migrant influx or potentially target certain groups of migrants.

This is not the first time U.S. tech companies have attemped to assuage concerns that their social platforms are used for breeding xenophobia. Facebook launched its Initiative for Civil Courage Online in Berlin earlier this year, pledging over €1 million to support non-governmental organizations in efforts to counter racist posts. 

But online rights groups have loudly countered this measure as they claim that the code of conduct was reached without consulting freedom-of-speech groups, and likely violates free speech rights. Fortune reports that an E.U. watchdog is now investigating this complaint.

The thin line between violating free speech rights and suppressing hateful, xenophobic commentary across social platforms will always be a contentious point. But U.S. tech firms appear more willing than ever to compromise with Europe on this subject amidst a migrant crisis that shows no signs of stopping any time soon.