The 28 Justice Ministers of the European Union’s member states recently met, together with the European Union Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourova, to discuss cyberhate. While the ministers ultimately encouraged Commissioner Jourova to continue efforts for greater self-regulation by the tech companies, some governments are taking a different approach. For example, Germany is leading the campaign for severe financial penalties for hate speech. The German government has already approved draft legislation to impose a EUR 50 million ($56 million) fine for each instance of clearly illegal hate speech that is reported by users but not removed within 24 hours.
While legal approaches to hate speech have long differed on either side of the Atlantic—protected by the First Amendment in the US, criminalized in Europe—recent events in Europe presage a significant widening of the regulatory gap regarding online hate speech, also known as cyberhate. The European Union is in the process of amending its Audio-Visual Media Services Directive, which establishes minimum regulatory requirements for EU member states. Videos on YouTube, Facebook or other online services will be treated as strictly as television broadcasts, and the tech companies may be held responsible for illegal content. This change in status from platform to publisher will likely have a tremendous impact on the companies’ content moderation approaches.
Legislation against hate speech would be very difficult to enforce. Our experience suggests that governmental efforts to curtail hate speech are likely to be less effective than encouraging the industry, and individual users, to self-regulate and apply more counter-speech strategies. Actions could include hiring more reviewers, providing more training on the various ways bigotry is expressed, collaborating on developing artificial intelligence and other technical solutions, and working on developing industry-wide standards for hate speech and enforcement.
Self-regulation by the industry is currently the most effective and readily available method for challenging cyberhate. If internet companies make positive strides in self-regulation, and become more accountable to their users and to the public at large, it may still be possible to avoid onerous restrictions on their platforms by national governments and intergovernmental agreements. Effective self-policing can protect free speech from government encroachment while reducing the public’s exposure to hate speech. However, cyberhate reflects larger social issues of bigotry and incivility for which internet companies are ultimately not responsible.