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Last week, the U.K. Government published proposals for “tough new measures to ensure the U.K. is the safest place in the world to be online,” claiming these to be the world’s “first online safety laws.” The U.K. Government wants “social media companies and tech firms to be legally required to protect their users and face tough penalties if they do not comply.”

Ironically, with Brexit as a backdrop, the European Union now looks set to go even further, with a proposal approved on Wednesday in the European Parliament that will force social media companies to remove terrorist related content within an hour or face substantial fines. EU lawmakers have become the latest to tackle the long-overdue regulation of social media, passing a proposal “to tackle the misuse of internet hosting services for terrorist purposes.”

The risk for social media is that “companies that systematically and persistently fail to abide by the law may be sanctioned with up to 4% of their global turnover.” Their let-off is that “they will not be generally obliged to monitor the information they transmit or store, nor have to actively seek facts indicating illegal activity.”

En route to being the law

The proposal, passed by 308 votes to 204 (with 70 abstentions), is not yet in final form. The final wording will be agreed with the Council of Ministers once the next set of EU elections are out of the way, but broadly internet companies that host user content (like Facebook or YouTube) and which operate in the EU would have “one hour to remove disable access in all EU member states” after receiving a removal order from a national authority relating to terrorist content.

The challenge for EU officials is that changes to the drafting made by the European Parliament will make the law ineffective. A European Commission official told the BBC that “given the importance, we have to come back and work on this again with them.”

The legislation is set to define terrorist content as “any material (text, images, sound recordings or videos) that incites or solicits the commission or contribution to the commission of terrorist offences, provides instructions for the commission of such offences or solicits the participation in activities of a terrorist group, as well as content providing guidance on how to make and use explosives, firearms and other weapons for terrorist purposes.”

The Conservative MEP, Daniel Dalton, acting as rapporteur for the proposal, said that “there is clearly a problem with terrorist material circulating unchecked on the internet for too long. This propaganda can be linked to actual terrorist incidents and national authorities must be able to act decisively. Any new legislation must be practical and proportionate if we are to safeguard free speech.”

But the risk, according to Fanny Hidvegi of Access Now, is that “the proposed legislation is another worrying example of a law that looks nice, politically, in an election period because its stated objective is to prevent horrendous terrorist content from spreading online. But worryingly, the law runs the severe risk of undermining freedoms and fundamental rights online without any convincing proof that it will achieve its objectives.”


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