Online content is increasingly popular today and the ability to use it to convey messages of hatred and intolerance can put people in serious danger. Member States have made a fundamental contribution to addressing this issue from different points of view.
The European Union and its Member States are committed to combating any online propaganda aimed at spreading violent and racist content. EU Member States have developed a wide range of legal instruments aimed at preventing the dissemination of illegal content by strengthening the powers of supervisory bodies and ensuring, among other things, the protection of young people against this type of influence.
In France, the judicial and administrative authorities are responsible for blocking or filtering specific websites subject to well-defined criteria and for removing content from these sites, in accordance with the law on the guarantee of trust in the digital economy. More specifically, under Articles 227-23 and 421-2-5 of the French Criminal Code, the competent administrative authority may remove images that constitute a criminal offence relating to child pornography or acts of terrorism. In addition, in accordance with Article 9 of the French Civil Code, the civil court may order any measure to prevent or stop the violation of the right to privacy. In France, the so-called Avia law was approved in June 2019 and adopted in May 2020, which requires online platforms to remove ''hate content'' within 24 hours and ''terrorist content'' within the hour. Failure to comply with the rule would result in fines of up to 1.25 million euros, equal to 4% of the platform's turnover.
In Italy there is no specific law on the surveillance and blocking of illegal content online. However, there are several laws aimed at providing preventive measures to address this problem. For example, Law n. 269/98 established the National Center for the prevention and prosecution of child pornography on the Internet, which has the task of collecting information from any public or private actor involved in combating this phenomenon. In addition, the violation of copyright is punished with fines, according to Law n. 633/1941 and art. 2043 of the Civil Code. In terms of violation of confidential data or defamation, pursuant to Law n. 70/2003, the information service provider may be responsible, in some cases, for inappropriate content disclosed. As in Italy, there is no specific legislation for illegal content on the Internet in the United Kingdom. However, according to the 2006 Terrorism Act the police may require the removal from the Internet of content that encourages or incites terrorist activities. In addition, the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act provides for the possibility of seeking an injunction to block access to sites when the Internet Service Providers Association is aware of people using their service to commit copyright infringement. In Germany there is no specific law for illegal online content, and the main legal rules with which the government addresses this issue are the German copyright law, trademark law and unfair competition law. However, in the event of a violation of the provisions on online content under the Interstate Treaty on Broadcasting and Media and the Interstate Treaty on the Protection of Minors in the Media, the State Media Authority can take appropriate measures to block illegal content on the internet.
As highlighted in a study by the German Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection of September 26, 2016, the measures taken by the network company were not sufficient to ensure a high level of protection against illegal content online. Government involvement is increasingly necessary. For this reason, the German Federal Ministry of Justice issued a draft regulation in 2017. This implies a legal obligation for social networks to report their trials, to establish a mechanism to eliminate illegal content and to provide very specific regulatory sanctions for non-compliance with the draft regulation. Also the Italian Government, according to a report of the European Commission of March 18, 2016, is called to extend its powers to discrimination based on color, language, religion, nationality and national origin and to take all necessary measures to ensure tolerance and respect for people in all cases. Precisely for this reason, the European Commission has drawn up a proposal for a regulation on the prevention of the dissemination of terrorist content online. This proposal in its original version had several critical points. Online content cannot be removed unless there is a prior decision on its legality. Obviously, such a decision must be taken by courts and judges verifying, from time to time, whether the content violates the law. It can certainly not be taken by private companies according to their arbitrary judgment, otherwise the distinction between violation of the law and violation of terms of service would be lost. Moreover, the legality of a content depends on the context, intent and motivation and each situation is different from the others. Therefore, even if you want to use specific search tools such as Natural Language Processing (NLP), it would be necessary to have a clear and precise definition of the word, phrase or content you are looking for. In this context, sometimes it is difficult to get a clear and unambiguous definition when talking about hate or terrorism.
The European Parliament adopted its position at first reading on April 17, 2019, stressing the need to safeguard the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Moreover, internet companies are generally not obliged to monitor their systems but, according to the amendments adopted, they should remove terrorist content within one hour if they receive a specific request from the competent authorities. The European Parliament has also given a more delineated definition of terrorist content that does not apply to: content made public for research purposes in the field of education, art or journalism; content that is simply the expression of controversial and contradictory visions; content whose objective is to increase people's awareness of the presence of terrorist activities. All this greatly reduces the risk of censorship.
The European Union is trying to do all it can to carry on the trialogue that will guarantee the birth of a regulation on the subject that can balance the need to remove content of incitement to hatred with the need to limit the censorship of so-called 'internet service providers'.
Translated by Noemi Monaco