How Europe and Italy are fighting illegal online hate speech

Assessing the new Code of Conduct protecting freedom of expression throughout the online world

A person tries out a tablet computer next to a cloud computing and technology symbol
A person tries out a tablet computer next to a cloud computing and technology symbol (Credits: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

To respond to the challenge of ensuring that online platforms do not offer opportunities for illegal online hate speech to spread virally, the European Union has launched a new Code of Conduct. The Code has been shaped together with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft, as it is a common idea that European institutions and other platforms and social media companies share a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating freedom of expression throughout the online world.

The Code’s aim is also to defend the right to freedom of expression. Unfortunatey, recent surveys have showen that 75% of those following or participating in online debates had come across episodes of abuse, threat or hate speech aimed at journalists. Nearly half of these people said that this deterred them engaging in online discussions. These results show that illegal hate speech should be effectively removed from social media, as it might limit the right to freedom of expression.

Each of the IT companies (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft) that signed this Code of Conduct committed to countering the spread of illegal hate speech online, and to having rules that ban the promotion of violence and hatred.

When they receive a request to remove content from their online platform, the IT companies will assess the request against their rules and community guidelines and, where applicable, national laws on combating racism and xenophobia. They then decide if the content can be considered as illegal online hate speech and if needs to be removed.

To make sure to work on a shared understanding of “illegal hate speech“, a new EU law has been approved defining illegal hate speech as “the public incitement to violence or hatred on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, colour, religion, descent and national or ethnic origin”.

The aim of the Code is to make sure that requests to remove content are dealt with speedily. The companies have committed to reviewing the majority of these requests in less than 24 hours and to removing the content if necessary.

Responding to this challenge it is not easy, but according to recent assessments the cooperation between the EU and IT companies is very successful: while six months ago these companies have been able to respond to 28 percent of users requests to remove online content, their effectiveness has now raised to 59 percent.

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