The Corner

World

A European War on (Everyone’s) Free Speech

That France’s President Macron, like Britain’s May and Germany’s Merkel, has been busy trying (often on the grounds of fighting fake news or vaguely defined hate speech) to muzzle what’s being posted on the Internet is not exactly news. For example, I’ve written about it here, here, here, and here.

In this piece for The Hill, Jonathan Turley offers up a useful reminder that this is not a problem that can been safely confined to a continent with an already somewhat limited respect for the idea of freedom of expression:

Macron and his government are attempting to unilaterally scrub out the internet of hateful thoughts. The French Parliament has moved toward a new law that would give internet companies like Facebook and Google just 24 hours to remove hateful speech from their sites or face fines of $1.4 million per violation. A final vote is expected next week. Germany passed a similar measure last year and imposed fines of $56 million.

The French and Germans have given up in trying to convince the United States to surrender its free speech protections. They realized that they do not have to because by imposing crippling penalties, major companies will be forced into censoring speech under poorly defined standards. The result could be the curtailment of the greatest invention fostering free speech in the history of the world. It is all happening without a whimper of opposition from Congress or from most civil liberties organizations.

The move by the Europeans hits in the blind spot of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment does an excellent job of preventing government action against free speech, and most of the laws curtailing free speech in Europe would be unconstitutional in the United States. However, although protected against Big Brother, we are left completely vulnerable to Little Brother, made up of the private companies that have wide discretion on curtailing and controlling speech around the world.

Europeans know these companies are quite unlikely to surgically remove content for individual countries. The effect will be similar to the “California Exception.” All states are subject to uniform vehicle emissions standards under the Clean Air Act, but California was given an exception to establish more stringent standards. Rather than create special cars for California, the more stringent standards tend to drive car designs. When it comes to speech controls, Europeans know they can limit speech not only in their countries but practically limit speech in the United States and elsewhere.

The range and the vagueness of these laws (and for the social media companies in question, the size of the fines) have had (as they were designed to do) a chilling effect, and not just at the corporate level.  Turning his attention to Germany, the land of Angela Merkel, leader of the free world, Professor Turley notes:

The result of such poorly defined laws is predictable. A recent poll found only 18 percent of Germans feel they can speak freely in public. More than 31 percent did not even feel free to express themselves in private among their friends. Just 17 percent of Germans felt free to express themselves on the internet, and 35 percent said free speech is confined to small private circles. That is called a chilling effect, and it should be feared.

Indeed.

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