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France prepares for war against online hate speech

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira Patrick Kovarik, AFP

France’s government is looking to adopt a tough new stance on online racism, anti-Semitism and other hate speech that would allow authorities to shut down offending websites amid a recent rise in hate crimes in the country.


Justice Minister Christiane Taubira has said she will push for legal reforms that would help French authorities crack down on racism and anti-Semitism online in much the same way they do with paedophilia. The proposals include empowering French authorities to shut down websites hosting content that is deemed illicit without prior court approval.

“Crimes recognised in public spaces must also be recognised as such on the Internet,” Taubira told a French Jewish student group on Sunday, echoing other recent statements on combating terrorism. “Our challenge is to find the most appropriate responses, but we are determined to wage an unmerciful battle against racism and anti-Semitism on the Internet.”

The declaration of war against online hate speech has raised questions about possible violations of civil liberties and the curtailing of due process as France struggles to find a way forward after a wave of deadly violence and anti-Semitic hate crimes in the country.

An Islamist gunman in January targeted a kosher supermarket – killing four people and taking hostages – as part of a string of attacks that terrorised the French capital for three days and started with a bloodbath at the office of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead.

France saw a sharp escalation in anti-Muslim acts immediately after the Paris killing spree, which was carried out by assailants claiming allegiance to al Qaeda in Yemen and the Islamic State jihadist group. A French group that monitors Islamophobia said it recorded 199 anti-Muslim acts in January alone, more than those reported in all of 2014.

Last week more than 250 tombs were vandalised by a group of teens at a Jewish cemetery in eastern France, sparking what appeared to be copycat acts in other non-Jewish cemeteries in Normandy and the Pyrenees in the following days.

Amid the compounding tensions, and real fears over the radicalisation of young people via the Internet, Taubira and other authorities want the legal means to counter racism, anti-Semitism and Islamist extremism on the web. But blocking ubiquitous online hate speech could be a thorny task for officials.

‘Protecting’ civil liberties

Some people are applauding France’s aggressive approach. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international rights group researching the Holocaust and hate crimes, says it has observed a steady rise in racist and anti-Semitic speech online since it began studying the phenomenon 20 years ago. The increase has been exponential since the advent of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

“France’s efforts must be congratulated,” Shimon Samuels, who heads the center’s Europe office, told FRANCE 24. “If child pornography and paedophilia have no place on the Internet, if advertising for things like alcohol and tobacco are controlled because they are considered noxious to children, then what about hate?”

Samuels downplayed the dangers of curtailing free speech or privacy as a result of Taubira's proposed reforms. He pointed out that nowhere are free speech laws an unlimited privilege, and that we constantly forfeit our right to privacy to online advertisers without batting an eye.

“I see this as a way of ultimately protecting civil liberties,” Samuels said. “Of course the measures need to work within the framework of the law, of course there has to be oversight so that they are not abused. A healthy debate is arising about freedoms, but that is part of democracy.”

Borderless cyberspace

But other experts are not as convinced about the wisdom of France’s more aggressive approach, nor about whether it will ultimately pay off.

“Other countries have already adopted very restrictive measures, some really go to the limits of what is acceptable in terms of freedom of expression,” noted Bridget O’Loughlin, the coordinator of the Strasbourg-based No Hate Speech Movement, a campaign funded by the Council of Europe.

O’Loughlin said what her campaign and others are finding is that, while pushing governments toward uncharted legal terrain, repressive measures are extremely difficult to implement because of the anonymity of web users and the borderless nature of cyberspace.

“There are real limits on what legislation can do,” she said.

French officials are aware of their own limits. While championing tougher online hate speech legislation at home, they have also embarked on a campaign abroad to bring other governments into the fight.

Harlem Désir, France’s state secretary for European affairs, urged world leaders gathered at the UN in late January to support the international regulation of social networks in order to crack down on racist and anti-Semitic propaganda.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve last week took a rare trip outside the country to Silicon Valley, where he reportedly urged the heads of Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google to help his government identify and block online content defending acts of terrorism and hate speech.

Wake-up call

It is unclear whether France will get what it wants from other countries and the Internet giants, with whom it has clashed in the past. In the meantime, it has launched an Internet site where citizens can report worrying content to police, and launched a multimedia campaign to expose the recruiting methods and myths used by jihadists.

Samuels and O’Loughlin agree that more also needs to be done on the education front.

Parents in both Jewish and Muslim communities need to be better informed about the kind of content children are encountering on the Internet, and be encouraged to have frank – even  uncomfortable – discussions with them about what they see, said Samuels.

O’Laughlin said people who have become blasé about the vitriol they encounter regularly on the web need to be woken from that stupor and given the tools to identify and report online hate speech.

“Our methods of education and research focus on young people, between the ages of 13 and 30,” she said. “But what we keep hearing is that we need to be talking to kids who are even younger than that.”


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