The European Union is preparing to expand its list of potential speech crimes and include hate speech that spreads on various internet platforms, but what the EU actually defines as hate speech could amount to criminalizing speech critical of mass migration and multiculturalism.
European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders promised this week that the Commission would soon present a proposal to unify legislation involving harassment and hatred online across the bloc. Until now, these matters have been the responsibility of individual states.
As the Commission said last year, the law should punish all allegedly hateful messages on the web, not only those supporting terrorism but also comments concerning race, religion, or sexual orientation.
The EU politicians believe that this step will cultivate the toxic environment of internet discussions and protect “vulnerable” minorities.
However, critics are concerned about freedom of expression, especially until it is clear who will be the arbitrator to assess the harmfulness of the posts. European officials swear that freedom of expression will remain inviolable, but given the track record of the European police force, Europol, in arresting private individuals for non-threatening comments they made online, there are worries that the EU could abuse its tremendous power.
Democracy may also be threatened by the new push to regulate speech, as it could serve as a major tool against European political parties critical of immigration and multiculturalism. Already member states such as German have launched mass surveillance of members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and launched a house raid on one of the party’s leaders for comments he made online that were critical of immigration.
Such actions, which are commonplace in totalitarian states across the world, may become commonplace in the EU as it pushes to criminalize speech. Given that the AfD is Germany’s largest opposition party and federal elections are quickly approaching, critics are concerned that Germany may be forming an authoritarian streak that may become a template for the rest of the EU when it comes to right-leaning parties across the bloc.
What is hate speech?
It is clear that the EU’s push to tighten hate speech has been a long-time goal of George Soros and his Open Society Foundation. He was already giving speeches on the need to regulate hate speech nearly a decade ago, and his influence in Brussels runs deep.
Soros is avidly opposed to governments critical of immigration, such as Hungary and Poland, and has used his influence to reshape European institutions. He has also directly called social media platforms to further regulate speech in recent times.
However, assessing what is considered open to public debate and what falls into the “hate speech” category also varies from one EU country to another. Although this may in theory present challenges to the EU’s attempt to reach a common definition, Brussels appears to be unconcerned with the diversity of opinion on the subject.
While some nations have clear regulations against certain types of speech, such as posting Nazi symbolism, measures to track and surveil web users who post such content remain controversial.
Last year, for example, Germany reacted to a report on growing anti-Semitism and hostility towards minorities by passing a law compelling social networks to report hateful comments, death threats, and Nazi propaganda within 24 hours. The operators also have to provide the IP address of the device where the post was created. A heated debate took place in Germany, pointing out the possible perils such “tracing” could bring, essentially ushering pinpoint surveillance that Germany’s Nazi and communist Stasi regimes never had the power to do, but most certainly would have envied.
According to Commissioner Reynders, however, it is necessary to unify the legislation to create a European definition of verbal crimes. Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová also said some time ago that individual states should not proceed on their own.
EU shows signs that it may censor criticism of migration
A challenging debate will certainly follow. Approval of the proposal requires unanimous acceptance by all 27 states.
According to one European Commission survey, many problematic posts concern the migration crisis. Two-fifths of all online hate speech mentions migrants or Muslims living in Europe. Every tenth post is anti-Semitic. The survey is a sign where the EU may focus its censorship.
As part of the fight against this “toxic” debate, Brussels is also trying to place controls on large internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. As early as 2018, these companies pledged to combat xenophobic content, as well as misinformation, which critics said would amount to mass censorship. Under the guise of combating hate, these companies have increasingly censored conservative content, including mass censorship of conservative publications and politicians in Poland, Hungary, Spain, broader Europe, and the United States.
These companies now employ entire armies of employees who delete posts marked as inappropriate 24 hours a day, and while there is genuinely harmful content, such as the promotion of terrorism and pedophilia, the ideological bent of these companies means conservatives are increasingly being targeted as well.
According to Brussels, it is now time to move from such voluntary commitments to more rigorous enforcement and sanctions if the rules are broken. Brussels proposes to impose fines of up to six percent of the platform’s turnover if a rule breach occurs.