Freedom to Tweet and Troll


The EU’s new rules regulating online speech may have the unintended consequence of doing more harm than good

In today’s information age, lawmakers seem to be more interested in promoting the right not to be offended instead of defending the right to free speech and expression. At least this is what the EU’s recently proposed rules seem to suggest. It, along with other technology companies including Microsoft and Google, have agreed to a new “code of conduct” back in May to encourage the censoring of hate speech online.

The new regulation is very much a reaction to the growing terrorist threats in Europe. European lawmakers have pointed to social media platforms as a means for terrorists and criminals to spread their noxious views and vile propaganda in an attempt to influence and radicalise others. Though it is not just Europe which has felt the need to intervene in this space; the UK too, as part of its antiterrorism strategy, is also considering new laws to eradicate radical ideas online. It was the EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights in October of last year on ‘Tolerance and respect: preventing and combatting Antisemitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe’ which triggered talks with tech companies to enforce these principles on the web.

Understandably, this new code has not exactly received the same enthusiasm as that of the EU so far. One of the main criticisms of the new policies is that it seems to encourage the privatisation of the legal frameworks regulating speech by giving internet companies the ability to pick and choose online posts which they deem hurtful. EU officials have defended its code of conduct such as VĕraJourová, the EU commissioner for justice. “The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online speech,” said Ms Jourová. But these new rules imposed by the EU may be ineffective in achieving its overall purpose. There a few reasons why.

Sticks and Stones

To begin with, such regulation could cause an increase in hate speech claims, not less. The new code of conduct is supposedly designed to deter internet users on social media and other online forums from posting offensive of hurtful speech. To quote the EU’s press release directly, “Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and racist use to spread violence and hatred.”

It is true that social media has become a place where terrorists and internet trolls exert loathsome and backward statements and claims. It can cause an unwelcoming environment for others who may be undeservingly subject to such degenerates. But the basic principle of free speech is that every individual in a democratic society has the right to express their view free of prosecution, no matter how controversial, unpopular or vulgar. Free speech encourages society to become more tolerant and encourage healthy debate. Implementing laws which suppress so-called ‘hurtful’ or ‘harmful’ speech only encourages a society that is more intolerant, in which people can determine for themselves whether they find certain views offensive. It gives people some sort of monopoly over what can be said about them, and that everyone else should obey this regardless of whether somebody makes a genuine argument or is pessimistically ‘trolling’.

This thus can have the result of causing greater tension and conflict; suppressing opinions may cause people to display even more flamboyant statements or even resort to violence which could threaten public safety. Hate-speech laws undermine democracy by privileging groups with the ability to outlaw views which they may find upsetting, and incur enmity.

Secondly, determining what is classed as hateful or hurtful speech under this new code can be very subjective, and therefore difficult to do. Drawing the line on what exactly hate speech is can be almost an impossible task since the nature of being offended or upset is so subjective. Different people find different things offensive. Thus, hate-speech regulations, such as this new code of conduct, can be dangerously broad as it can potentially outlaw any kind of speech that one may claim to find offensive. It opens a messy can of worms.

Thirdly, implementing such regulations, realistically, is almost impossible. Internet companies would have to constantly monitor and respond to numerous claims, and in doing so more and more controversial posts are being made in the thousands or more. Even if a user is blocked or their account is taken down, the openness of the internet allows them to simply move to a different platform to project the same supposed vulgarness.

Cracking down on views that aim to radicalise youngsters and others to perform terrorist acts that could threaten public safety is a reasonable aim. Yet, this EU-imposed code conduct, The Cyber Solicitor believes, unfortunately, may do more harm than good.