France may soon be able to fine Facebook over hate speech

5 Jul 2019

The Palais Bourbon in Paris, which houses the French senate and national assembly. Image: © PUNTOSTUDIOFOTO Lda/

France’s new bill is inspired by one that came into effect last year in Germany, allowing the latter to fine social media sites up to €50m if they do not remove ‘obviously illegal’ posts within 24 hours.

On Wednesday (3 July), French parliament began debating a bill on online speech and harassment to bring tech laws up to speed with France’s general position on hate speech and incitement of violence.

In February, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that this bill would be discussed to address a resurgence of antisemitism around Europe. Macron stated that there is a need for “incisive, concrete” acts against all kinds of hate speech, online and offline.

In France, public provocation to hatred, disputing crimes against humanity, public justification of terrorism, and incitement to terrorism are crimes that are all currently punishable by law. Macron wants these laws to apply more extensively to social media, and hopes to push tech companies to take action by announcing this bill.

France’s bill is inspired by a new one that came into effect last year in Germany, allowing the latter to fine social media sites up to €50m if they do not remove “obviously illegal” posts within 24 hours. This week, for the very first time since the law was introduced, Germany actually fined Facebook €2m for failing to adhere to it.

There has been some concern about the introduction of such laws and the impact they may have on free speech. For example, The New York Times reported that a French lawyer named Christophe Bigot, who specialises in media-related cases, worries that tech companies will be overzealous in their policing.

Bigot wrote that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel may be a difficult topic for social media platforms to tackle within the 24-hour window given to them by France and Germany.

In an op-ed for Le Figaro, Bigot asked: “How can one leave that analysis to [an] employee of a platform, even motivated by the best intentions? They won’t take the risk of exposing their employer to a penalty equal to 4pc of its revenue.”

Despite these concerns, the lower house of French lawmakers went ahead and approved the measure a day later (4 July). If the bill is eventually approved by the French senate, it will establish that social networks have a 24-hour deadline to remove hate speech from their platforms, from the time that the offending content is flagged.

As well as creating policy on content that incites or encourages hateful violence or discrimination based on race or religion, the bill will also incorporate issues regarding child abuse imagery. According to the Associated Press: “Search engines would have to stop referencing the content as well.”

The Verge reported that France’s fines against social networks could be up to €1.25m.

Meanwhile this week, Facebook conceded that its previous ban on praise of white supremacy was not exhaustive enough, and announced a roll-out of new policies designed to curb hate speech on the platform.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic