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Users #StandWithHateSpeech to debate EU agreement

Cherie ChanJune 1, 2016

After four media giants have agreed with the EU to identify and remove hateful and violent materials online, social media users discussed the rights of free speech using a hashtag that supposedly condones hate speech.

Symbolbild Soziale Netze
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Lei

A new code of conduct has been signed between the European Commission and four tech companies to review and remove, if necessary, illegal hate speech within 24 hours.

The agreement with Facebook, Twitter, Google's YouTube and Microsoft aims to address recent terror attacks and the use of social media by terrorist groups to radicalize young people.

"This agreement is an important step forward to ensure that the internet remains a place of free and democratic expression, where European values and laws are respected," said EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Vera Jourova.

What makes content unlawful?

While pressuring tech companies to take more responsibilities in policing the content they host, the code of conduct also provided a definition on what constitues "illegal hate speech."

Referencing an EU framework decision on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law, the agreement states that the legal basis of illegal online content refers to "the public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin."

However, free speech advocates and civil society representatives have criticized that while the code of conduct does address the issue of hate speech, it also authorizes private companies to arbitrarily take down content and is non-binding.

"This process, established outside an accountable democratic framework, exploits unclear liability rules for companies," the European Digital Rights (EDRi), a Brussels-based advocacy group, said in a statement.

"It also creates serious risks for freedom of expression as legal but controversial content may well be deleted as a result of this voluntary and unaccountable take down mechanism," the statement pointed out.

The organization claims that the agreement will in turn let private companies to "sweep offences under the carpet," and law enforcement authorities will no longer take the lead in examining the legality of online content.

"Standing with hate speech"

Many Twitter users expressed their skepticism of the agreement and debated it using #IStandWithHateSpeech, a hashtag that might seem unusual for a trending topic. But what they discussed is actually more about advocating for free speech, by pointing out that the agreement may turn into a tool for censorship.

Some users also noted that having the right to criticize and to voice different opinions is what freedom of speech is all about.

On the other hand, the auto-complete function of hashtags on Twitter didn't seem to apply to this trending discussion.

The fact that this widely debated hashtag isn't being automatically completed by Twitter's search engine raises questions as to whether the social network has already implemented its new hate speech policy.