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EU warns tech companies that tough regulations over hate speech are on the way

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg end European Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova in Brussels, 17 February 2020.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg end European Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova in Brussels, 17 February 2020. Yves Herman/Reuters
3 min

The European Commission has warned big tech companies that they face tougher rules and penalties in Europe if they do not curb hate speech and disinformation on their platforms.

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“It's not for us to adapt to this company, it's for this company to adapt to us," said Breton, a former French finance minister, and former CEO at French telecom Orange and French technology company Atos, on Monday, after meeting Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Brussels.

Breton, who leads EU digital policy, along with Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, said a proposal for a Digital Services Act by the end of 2020 could be much tougher on big tech, which so far has been self-regulated.

These new rules "can be binding to avoid this kind of abuse, because it is abusive, when totally illegal content is massively disseminated to our fellow citizens," Breton said.

Zuckerberg was in Brussels urging officials to not go too far in punishing platforms for carrying hate speech, so as not to curb free speech.

 Facebook needs to decide

The Facebook chief met with European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova, who became an outspoken critic of Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018.

Good regulation of hate speech would require a new type of regulator for the EU, Zuckerberg argued to Jourova.

After the meeting, Jourova said Zuckerberg was coming around to the European approach on regulations. But she said it would be unfair for the company to shift all the burden to authorities.

“Facebook cannot push away all the responsibility," because regulations will never solve every problem, she said. “It will not be up to governments or regulators to ensure that Facebook wants to be a force of good or bad."

In a paper submitted to the commissioners, Facebook stressed that the way to limit unwanted speech was to make sure that platforms put the right systems in place, not by holding them liable for the speech itself.

The company's recommendations include requiring companies to set up “user-friendly” channels to report harmful content and regularly release enforcement data. It suggested that governments should define what illegal content is.

Breton said the proposals were "interesting" but "not enough: too slow, too low in terms of responsibilities".

He added that Facebook, the world's biggest social media network that also owns Instagram and Whatsapp, had not addressed its market dominance.

Regulating AI

Breton and Vestager will announce on Wednesday proposed regulations on artificial intelligence, including facial recognition, as well as the bloc’s digital strategy that would challenging the dominance of the big tech companies Facebook, Google and Amazon.

The EU has already pushed through strict data privacy rules and issued multibillion-dollar antitrust fines against companies like Google.

On Monday Zuckerberg met with Vestager, whose proposal on AI is expected to involve a "risk-based" approach similar to how Europe approaches food safety concerns, such as GMOs and chemicals.

She has said she would back away from a ban on facial recognition technology and instead ask companies and authorities to think hard before deploying it.

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