France wants online terrorist content removed faster

European Union – Fight against terrorism – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to the daily newspaper Le Figaro

Paris, 22 October 2020

Q. – Since 2004, Europe has had trouble taking swift, decisive action to tackle terrorism. What can it do to be more effective?

THE MINISTER – It has to be much quicker and realize it isn’t a problem which concerns [only] a few countries. It’s a problem which threatens its values and its security. Unfortunately, for nearly a decade many European countries – including France, again – have shared the experience of terrorism. Europe has developed a number of actions over the past few years, particularly in the areas of judicial and police cooperation and intelligence. On France’s initiative, the Intelligence College in Europe was created; it allows Europe’s [intelligence] services to learn to work together. This was an initiative of the President in his Sorbonne speech. There have been major efforts in fighting terrorist financing at international and European levels. Everything which falls within the scope of regulatory powers in Europe must be mobilized in the fight against terrorism, by strengthening its legislation or extending the powers of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office to include the fight against terrorism. This is why France has pushed for Europe to have solid tools to regulate online content, not just declarations or mantras. Regulating content requires European action. A regulation has been negotiated since 2018, with France as its driving force. We secured an agreement from Member States several months ago. Today we’ve got to secure an agreement with the European Parliament. The vital need for security isn’t theoretical: the urgency of the situation compels us to act.

Q. – The Prime Minister is going to Brussels on Friday. What is France asking for?

THE MINISTER – First of all, a swift agreement on the text under discussion, with three main things. Firstly, a very short deadline for removing online terrorist content. As we saw at the time of the Christchurch attack and noticed after the attack in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, images of the attack were posted and shared on a huge scale. We’re calling on the platforms to remove them within one hour. The second, very important point for being effective on this deadline is that each State must be able to directly ask the major digital platforms to remove content, without going through long and complicated procedures. Third pillar: preventive measures. The platforms must have tools for identifying and filtering terrorist content. That’s crucial, in order to prevent redistribution. If you’ve identified a terrorist picture or video and it’s removed, in order to prevent it being reposted by another account the platforms must have automatic tools that identify and delete it.

Completing this legislation is a matter of urgency. The regulation is deadlocked at the European Parliament over the issue of defending freedom of expression. We can’t get bogged down in European procedural dithering. Everyone’s committed to freedom of expression. Indeed, it’s in the name of freedom of expression that we’re fighting Islamist terrorism. But we mustn’t be naïve. Freedom of expression mustn’t hamper the fight against terrorism, and social media are currently the spillway/overflow pipe) for these actions. The European countries reacted in very strong terms to the Conflans attack. That solidarity is reassuring. But it’s useful only if translated into actions. Unless the EU shows it can make a difference on such an issue, our fellow citizens will lose confidence, not only in France. I also regret the fact that the National Rally MEPs voted against the text, which they regard as “freedom-destroying”; you can’t have double standards in Paris and in Strasbourg.

Q. – In the face of Russia or China, you can see the difficulty of combating fake news. Regarding terrorism, can we clearly define what has to be banned?

THE MINISTER – The debate on the fight against hateful content is far bigger than the issue of terrorist acts. In the case of Conflans, we saw incitement to hatred before the attack. At European level, pragmatically, we began with a specific regulation on terrorist content. We can see the specific problem of terrorist pictures or videos both in incitement to hatred and in radicalization through images after the event, which are our terrorist enemies’ macabre trophies. Europe must take very clear and swift action on this.

Q. – Is there a desire to cooperate with GAFA [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon] on this issue?

THE MINISTER – We’re aware of the limits of self-regulation and friendly dialogue. Ultimately, you need legally binding measures. A number of platforms play the role of identifying and removing content. But today we can no longer allow ourselves to have no law. For the future, the issue of terrorist content is only one of the fronts in the battle against online hatred. At the beginning of December, French Commissioner Thierry Breton will propose a very ambitious set of rules to regulate the digital world in general, covering the aspects of competition and algorithm transparency in particular. In this context, we must go further than regulating terrorist content and deal appropriately with the issue of online hatred. European legislation currently absolves digital platforms from responsibility for the content they spread. We need rules of responsibility for hosts. They play a central role in shaping information. Secondly, the issue of the field of content you’re acting on is also crucial. There is content – anti-Semitic or racist in particular – which isn’t directly terrorist but which incites hatred. It exists in the real world of rules of responsibility and of overseeing freedom of expression. There’s no reason for these not to be extended to the digital world. It’s a vital challenge for Europe and its values./.

Published on 23/10/2020

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