Netizen Report: In Leaked Docs, European Commission Says Tech Companies Should Self-Regulate on Harmful Speech

Photo by Cory Doctorow. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

In the wake of public panic surrounding a spike in threats of violence and hate speech online, the European Commission has been preparing new recommendations on how member states should address “illegal online content.”

Although they have not been officially submitted, a leaked draft of the recommendations has begun to circulate and is now accessible on the website of European Digital Rights, a coalition group of civil society and human rights groups dedicated to protecting free speech and privacy online. The draft suggests that the Commission will not propose new regulations, but rather envisions private companies like Facebook and Google taking greater responsibility for these issues voluntarily.

In a brief analysis of the recommendations, EDRi’s Joe McNamee writes:

On the basis of no new analyses, no new data and no new pressing issues to be addressed, the leaked draft Recommendation seeks to fully privatise the task of deciding what is acceptable online or not. The only protection for user rights like freedom of expression is an unenforceable hope that certain “adequate safeguards” will be put in place voluntarily by the companies. The draft reminds readers – twice – that the providers have “contractual freedom”, meaning that any such safeguards will be purely optional.

The only specific types of online content referenced in the draft are “terrorist material” (no definition offered) and content under copyright. McNamee argues that “the repeated references to measures proposed to address copyright and ‘intellectual property rights’ infringements gives an indication of the real driving force behind for such far-reaching measures.”

Bangladesh orders internet shutdown, then backs down

On February 11, the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission ordered internet service providers to shut down the internet over a few set time periods, during the month of February that corresponds with national university placement exams. The impetus for the temporary shutdowns was to stifle the circulation of leaked answers to the exams. The order was swiftly reversed following broad public criticism.

Malawi suspends mandatory SIM card registration until further notice

The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority announced in June 2017 that it would become mandatory for mobile phone users to register their SIM cards with network operators, citing registration provisions in the Communications Act of 2016. In late January, authorities doubled down on this promise and set a deadline for SIM registration, threatening that any phone with an unregistered card would have its service shut off on April 1, 2018.

But this week, the measure was suspended, with authorities citing the need for a “civic education” campaign on the matter before resuming registration practices. Azania Post reports that some citizens have shown reluctance to register their SIM cards for fear that the program is “a ploy by the government to tap people’s phones.”

Research shows that European telcos behave better at home than in Africa

A new study by the French NGO Internet San Frontieres shows that major European telecommunications providers offering services in Sub-Saharan Africa do not offer the same levels of transparency and consumer protection to African customers as they do to their European markets. The study compares the practices and policies of Orange in Senegal and Safaricom (owned by Vodafone) in Kenya.

Brazil’s largest newspaper ditches Facebook

Folha de Sao Paulo announced that it will no longer post news articles or updates on its Facebook page, which has nearly six million followers. In an editorial-like article, the company said the decision stems primarily from Facebook's recent decision to reduce the amount of newsfeed content from Facebook pages, instead favoring posts by friends and family. Folha’s executive editor accused Facebook of “…banning professional journalism from its pages in favour of personal content and opening space for ‘fake news’ to proliferate.”

Big advertiser threatens to leave Facebook, calling it a ‘swamp’

The behemoth British-Dutch company Unilever, which owns major food and toiletry brands including Lipton tea and Dove soap, is threatening to pull its advertising from Facebook. CNN published a pre-released copy of a speech by Unilever marketing executive Keith Weed in which he says that the company “cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain … which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency.” CNN says that Weed attributed the move to a “proliferation of objectionable content on social media — and a lack of protections for children — is eroding social trust, harming users and undermining democracies.”

Facebook is violating German consumer laws

A Berlin court ruling (made in January but released to the public in mid-February) found that Facebook’s default settings for privacy and corresponding policies do not meet the basic standards for personal data protection required by German consumer protection laws. The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by the Federation of German consumer organizations, VZBV. The company has pledged to overhaul its privacy approach in tandem with the release of the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

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