PARIS—The French government plans to give regulators here sweeping power to audit and fine large social-media companies like Facebook Inc. if they don’t adequately remove hateful content—ratcheting up global oversight of Silicon Valley.
France intends to introduce laws that would create a “duty of care” for widely used social-media companies, requiring them to moderate hate speech published on their platforms, according to French officials, speaking ahead of a Friday meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg.
Richard Allan, a Facebook vice president, said the proposals were in line with the “kind of models we think will be effective in future.” He said “it’s about the platforms doing the work effectively but being very clearly accountable to a regulator.”
The French move accelerates efforts by governments from Berlin to Canberra to make tech companies more responsible for the inappropriate content their platforms sometimes distributes—whether it be electoral disinformation, terrorist propaganda or a pirated copy of a Hollywood film.
These efforts come amid a global wave of regulation and investigations of big tech firms. The European Union has enacted broad restrictions on how companies handle data as concerns over privacy grow. Governments also are probing how tech giants pay their taxes, and whether some companies are abusing their size and market power to thwart competition.
The French proposals are modeled on how banks are required by regulators in many jurisdictions to take adequate measures to protect their customers against fraud. The legislation would give new authority to an independent regulator in France, with investigative powers to verify that firms are appropriately guarding against the publication of hate speech on their platforms, according to these officials. The measures don’t, however, oblige companies to detect every piece of hate speech, the officials said.
French lawmakers must approve the proposals, which could be amended. Mr. Macron’s party has a large majority.
The French proposals attempt to draw a finer line on one of the thorniest topics regarding policing content: how to regulate social-media’s excesses without trampling free speech.
“You’re not responsible for all of the content on your platform, but you are responsible for designing a mechanism of control that is up to the task,” Cédric O, France’s junior minister for digital affairs, said in an interview. “If it works, it’s an approach we can extend to many other subjects well beyond hate speech.”
The French approach draws on a report to be published Friday from 10 French officials who spent the first three months of 2019 visiting Facebook offices in Europe for briefings on how the company handles hate speech.
Because of free speech concerns, France’s proposals would only require companies to maintain an effective system for removing illegal content but won’t make them liable for every single posting, like in some other countries, French officials said. A regulator could issue hefty fines in the event that companies were found to be lacking in their internal processes, the officials added.
“Even if their system of regulation is effective, it’s as if a bank said to regulators, ‘When it comes to banking oversight, don’t worry about it, I’m on top of it,’” Mr. O said. “The state should be able to check they are on top of it.”
Tech executives have indicated that they are more willing to embrace regulation, including Mr. Zuckerberg, who said earlier this year that global regulators should take a more active role in governing the internet. Big tech companies say they already work hard to remove illicit and harmful content and increasingly with the help of automated artificial-intelligence tools.
However, calls for more regulation have intensified after a gunman earlier this year killed 51 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand while broadcasting a live video on Facebook. Governments around the world are considering harsher requirements and big fines
On Wednesday, Singapore approved a new law that requires social-media platforms to take down or issue corrections to articles or statements posted on their platforms that Singapore government ministers deem to be false.
Australia’s parliament last month passed a bill that requires social-media companies to expeditiously remove violent material posted to their platforms, with penalties for noncompliance including hefty fines and prison sentences. Shortly thereafter, the U.K. proposed the creation of a new regulator empowered to force companies to take action on a gamut of illicit content, from disinformation to cyberbullying.
Germany last year implemented a law that threatens big fines for companies that systematically fail to remove extremist content or hate speech.
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission is completing a settlement that could include a fine for Facebook of as much as $5 billion, alleging breaches of consumer privacy. The body’s commissioners testified Wednesday in front of a House subcommittee advocating a new data privacy law.
Tech lobbyists have opposed efforts to create too many obligations to remove content, in part because they say it would hurt smaller firms without the resources to police every posting. In March, U.S.-based Information Technology Industry Council said in a policy paper about European tech proposals that requirements to monitor or filter all content could create “unrealistic or undesirable burdens.”
Mr. Macron has cast himself as a more reasonable interlocutor for tech firms, saying firms should embrace European regulations as a middle way between strict state control in China and a more hands-off approach to regulating speech in the U.S.
Tech executives and free-speech activists warn that requiring the internet be scrubbed of all illicit content could lead to a chilling effect.
“If we want the filters to be perfect, we’re just going to have to turn them up. And what that’s going to mean is that legitimate content is also going to get filtered,” said Andrew Sullivan, chief executive of the Internet Society, a nonprofit focused on internet technology and policy.
Write to Sam Schechner at [email protected]
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