It is often argued that Facebook is a private enterprise and therefore free to censor whatever it wishes.
However, Facebook and the other internet giants, such as Google, YouTube (a subsidiary of Google), and Twitter, have come to control the flow of information on the internet, to such a degree – as virtual monopolies -- that they have become the 'public square' of our times. That outcome makes them far more than merely private enterprises and endows them with a special responsibility: Those who cannot publish on Facebook or Twitter, effectively no longer have full freedom of speech.
Governments have always known that free speech can be controlled on social media -- there is no internet freedom in countries such as China or Russia. For years, however, Western governments have also been controlling the conduct of free speech on the internet – in the name of fighting supposed 'hate speech'. Controlling free speech has taken the form of 'cooperating' with the internet giants -- Facebook, Google, Twitter and You Tube -- on voluntary initiatives such as the EU "Code of Conduct on countering illegal online hate speech online", which requires social media giants to act as censors on behalf of the European Union and to remove within 24 hours content that is regarded as "illegal hate speech".
This control of free speech has also brought about national legislation, such as Germany's censorship law, in 2018. This law requires social media platforms to delete or block any alleged online "criminal offenses", such as libel, slander, defamation or incitement, within 24 hours of receipt of a user complaint. If the platforms fail to do so, the German government can fine them up to 50 million euros for failing to comply with the law.
Two new initiatives look likely to intensify government censorship on the internet.
In France, a recent government report about Facebook, commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, has called for increasing government oversight over the social media giant. This new 'oversight' includes allowing an "independent regulator" to police how Facebook deals with alleged hate speech. The report has also called for laws allowing the French government to investigate and fine social networks that "don't take responsibility" for the content published by users on their websites. As part of writing the report, French regulators who spent six months inside Facebook, monitoring its policies, concluded, "The inadequacy and lack of credibility in the self-regulatory approach adopted by the largest platforms justify public intervention to make them more responsible".
France's parliament is currently debating legislation that would give such a new 'independent regulator' the power to fine tech companies up to 4% of their global revenue if they do not do enough to remove 'hateful content' from their network. "I am hopeful that it [the French proposal] can become a model that can be used across the EU", Mark Zuckerberg said after a recent meeting with Macron.
In Paris on May 15, 17 countries, the European Commission, and eight major tech companies adopted the Christchurch Call to Action agreement. This agreement, initiated by France and New Zealand, is named after a terrorist attack that killed 51 Muslim worshipers in two Christchurch mosques in March. According to the Christchurch Call's website:
"The Christchurch Call is a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. It rests on the conviction that a free, open and secure internet offers extraordinary benefits to society. Respect for freedom of expression is fundamental. However, no one has the right to create and share terrorist and violent extremist content online.
"The support shown in Paris for the Christchurch Call is just the first step. We are now calling on other countries, companies, and organisations to join us."
The US did not sign the agreement. The White House wrote in an official statement:
"We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Further, we maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging."
As indicated by the US in its statement, the problem with these government-led drives for more censorship in the name of fighting "terrorist and violent extremist content online" is where one draws the line as to what constitutes "hate speech", and the extent to which such drives can manage to uphold the rights of citizens to free speech. In Europe, hate-speech laws have increasingly been used to shut down the speech of citizens who disagree with government migration policies.
The claim of preventing the spread of terrorist content has also been used as an excuse in attempts to shut down political opponents, such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally) party, formerly known as Front National. She has been charged with circulating "violent messages that incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity" and could be facing three years' imprisonment and a fine of possibly €75,000 ($90,000). In 2015, she had tweeted images of atrocities committed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and that could be viewed by a minor. One of the images showed the body of James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by ISIS terrorists, while the others showed a man in an orange jumpsuit being driven over by a tank and another of a man being burned alive in a cage.
In Denmark, an outspoken critic of Islam, Jaleh Tavakoli, a Danish-Iranian blogger and author of the book, Public Secrets of Islam, shared an online video of the rape and murder by Islamic State terrorists in Morocco of two Scandinavian young women. Tavakoli was not only charged for sharing the video but was threatened that the state would take away her foster daughter. Tavakoli explained that she shared the video because the international media was reporting that the Danish woman had been beheaded -- while no such information was to be found in the Danish media. How are citizens supposed to be able to even talk about Islamic terrorism -- or any terrorism -- if governments criminalize people who post information about the atrocities committed by such terrorists?
At the same time, the different signatories to the Christchurch Call to Action appear to have different views on what constitutes terrorism in the first place, further complicating how one should define 'terrorist content'. The UK's decision earlier this year to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety, for example, stands in stark contrast to the rest of the EU, which designated only Hezbollah's "military wing" as a terrorist organization in 2013, after a Hezbollah terrorist attack in July 2012 in Burgas, Bulgaria, killed five Israeli tourists and their local bus driver, and injured another 32 people. Until then, the EU had not viewed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization at all. The US had already designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1997.
Given all of the above, it is impossible not to view these new government-led attempts at curbing free speech, however well-meaning they are intended to be, with acute alarm for the future of free speech.
 Australia, Canada , France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan , Jordan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
 Amazon, Daily Motion, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Qwant, Twitter and YouTube.
 Only 9 of the supporting countries and the European Commission were physically present at the meeting on May 16.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.