Clearly, there are limits to freedom of speech. Pretty much everyone would agree that posting somebody’s address alongside an offer of financial reward if they are beaten up or killed should be illegal. Most would also agree that inciting violence more generally against ethnic or religious groups is completely unacceptable. Likewise, our economies would simply struggle to function if publishing a customer’s credit card details online was protected under freedom of speech.

So, where should we draw the line? New technology brings this question into sharp relief, whether it’s lawyers tackling the issue of “revenge porn” on video sharing sites, or counter-terrorism officials responding to extremist propaganda by the so-called Islamic State on social media. How do we decide what content is unacceptable in a democratic and transparent manner, who decides whether it should be removed or not (and how are they held to account), and how is unacceptable content actually taken down without infringing people’s freedom of expression?

On Tuesday 5 February 2019 at 13:30 CET, Debating Europe held a live debate in the European Parliament on freedom of speech, hate speech, and moderating illegal content online. We put questions and comments sent in from our readers to a panel of experts representing all sides of the debate.

Taking part on the panel were:

  • Eva Maydell, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) with the European People’s Party;
  • Benjamin Ledwon, Head of Brussels Office, Bitkom;
  • Julia Mozer, Communication Officer & Hate Speech Advisor, CEJI;
  • Lorcán Price, Legal Counsel, ADF International;

You can watch the video of the debate at the top of this page (if, for some reason, the video doesn’t load then please follow this link).

Who should decide what is acceptable online? Where do we draw the line in terms of illegal content? How do we determine what is “hate speech” and what is just critical comment? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC0 / Pexels – Soumil Kumar
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50 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Andy

    Illegal content might be defined by law and a court order.

    “How do we determine what is “hate speech” and what is just critical comment?”

    Very simple. If it is “illegal”. There is a court verdict on grounds of law. E.g. because a speech act was criminal. Because there is an injuction etc.

    However, the persons who use the term “hate speech” want to sanction or suppress speech which is not unlawful, counters their political opinions or their own interpretation of human rights. For instance the Hollywood code regulated what is permitted in a screenplay as an industry rule. This is dangerous.

    We have the right to do all sorts of distasteful things unless the law prohibits it.

    As an alternative one could introduce an 80% rule which still bears the problem of a positivism trap. If 80% of a populace agree that something is inappropriate it is inappropriate. That would not qualify platforms like Facebook to censure nipples with which at least 80% of Europeans are fine, including the Vatican museum of art. Here it is plainly unacceptable if a platform imposes a moral code of a third nation on us and participants are compelled to overtake it to avoid getting banned. Code of Conducts have to adhere to the 80% rule of a community, otherwise they impose the (at times imaginary) interests of minorities on majorities. E.g. I see no point to ban (perfectly lawful) “homophobic” comments unless they are unacceptable by 80% of the populace. Otherwise we get tyrannies of minorities and there are many examples of that in the hate speech debate which deny our right to offend others.

  2. avatar
    Pasqualino

    If I don’t want to read or watch one media I can get out.

  3. avatar
    Marc

    The person looking at the page decides. Anything else would be censorship and that is immoral. Just like prohibition.

  4. avatar
    Gregory

    “The line is the law” in a liberal democracy? That is a horrible statement in a discussion of who should make the rules and law. It is more appropriate to authoritarianism.

    • avatar
      Alexandru

      A democracy is either a democracy or not.
      What you are speaking about is called anarchy.

  5. avatar
    Alfredo

    The reader decides what he wants to see and read, not the eurocrats, because that’s censorship and censorship is dictatorship.

  6. avatar
    Rahman

    what if hate speech encourged by website itself to create sansetion~~~ majority of hate speech comes from unidentified account . and what is funny is world has comes to so far as per technology concern but they are just not willing to make sure people using internet are identified with proper registration..

  7. avatar
    Linda

    The legislation is woefully inadequate right now

    • avatar
      Alexandru

      By who’s standards?

  8. avatar
    Linda

    I am with an earlier comment, that there are many websites that stir up hate speech, perhaps best to deal with them first.

  9. avatar
    Julia

    Lorcan rocks. Common sense and freedom of speech prevails. An incitement to violence is obviously bad. Expressing truths or valid opinions that some people might take offence to is not hate speech and people have a right to express them without being reported, banned or removed. I like that Lorcan said in real life if you don’t want to hear something you might not like you would have to stay home and not leave the house. The online equivalent would be ‘scroll on by’ or click the ‘x’ button.

  10. avatar
    Alex

    How would you define “online” in the context of this debate? Is it speech or discussion on mainstream platforms provided by companies such as Twitter or Facebook, smaller forums run independently, or on private messaging platforms? Where is the line drawn between what is, essentially, moderation on public platforms, and what is personal communication, that is protected under basic privacy rights?
    How is that feasible technologically?

  11. avatar
    Alex

    If the law is the line – when in a liberal democracy does it become a crime to challenge the law (as opposed to breaking it)?
    Is it possible to have the law as the line without turning dissent into a crime, a notion that is directly opposed to the very base of any variety of liberalism?

  12. avatar
    Alex

    Can Lorcán’s question be answered though?

  13. avatar
    Alex

    That debate needs to take as much time as it needs to reach it’s logical conclusions.

  14. avatar
    Octavian

    Acceptable online should be exactly what is acceptable in real life, no excuses or exceptions. The good part is online usually leaves traces can be used as proof if needed.

  15. avatar
    Mark

    Not politicians, or before we know it we will be paying some kind of tax on it, and they will be trying to figure out how to privatise it for their mates!

  16. avatar
    Shana

    I gonne leave internet because everything they block when they want thats no freedom of speech so send back letters to me i dont pay for a crime politician sending me what i may or not

  17. avatar
    Tom

    While I agree that some stuff is totally unacceptable we have to be careful with how we deal with it and not go down the road of restricting free speech and censorship. Some governments love to use this argument to quell opposition to their policies. As the old saying goes ” be careful what you wish for”.

    • avatar
      Dennis

      threatening physical violence and calling on others to do something illegal.

      those are the only things that need to be punished, everything else is free speech.

  18. avatar
    Alexandru

    “Who should decide what is acceptable online?”
    The LAW! If anybody cares about it anymore…

    • avatar
      David

      Whose law?

    • avatar
      Alexandru

      Your question does not even deserve an answer.

    • avatar
      Alice

      so you are ok with online monitoring…eh what about freedom of speech cos that will be affected. The “law” will use internet monitoring for it’s own agenda.

    • avatar
      Neil

      governments make laws and mostly they make laws to suit themselves! The Irish government tried to bring in water charges and when people objected they made it LAW ! We all refused to pay it so almost every Irish citizen had to break the law in order to object – which is a human right!

    • avatar
      Alexandru

      Well, of course you can brake the law (and you can also fight it in other ways too – like a protest or strike, for example) but you have to be prepared to take the consequences.
      The question was: “Who should decide what is acceptable online?”
      And my answer is: A good staring point would be the law.

    • avatar
      Kenny

      There isn’t an international law… each country has their own laws.
      Which countries laws get to decide for the world?

    • avatar
      Alexandru

      You don’t live in the whole world. You live in a country. You’d better start to respect the law in that country.
      I don’t think you risk anything by criticising Putin or Trump, do you?
      But I am 100% sure you can get in trouble denying the holocaust, where you live.

    • avatar
      John

      He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.

    • avatar
      Alexandru

      Totally agree!
      But! What does security have to do with freedom of speech and hate speech in this case?

  19. avatar
    Michelle

    Law can regulate what is acceptable reporting must be Factual, but Opinion should not be censored.. it is a crime to misinform, it is not a crime to have an opinion because right wrong black grey or white it can be Debated.. the whole point of the internet is to learn from public debate and one another around the world.

    True brilliance can therefore shine and the dark can be monitored and not in the closet surprising everyone one day too late.

    Sounds like a useful life and environment tool to me :)

  20. avatar
    Marc

    Households have to regulate themselves – not government or the EU. There’s nothing people can’t find Online or at the library, if they’re determined.

  21. avatar
    Grace

    Don’t know why you’re bothering to ask the question when the people will get no say in it anyway! Stop wasting peoples time, the unelected EU will do as they please.

  22. avatar
    Nicolò

    A real justice system with real democratic garantees, real defence rights and a real indipendent judiciary power, no corporative stuff, as offline.

  23. avatar
    Filip

    Don’t ask this question when we have nothing to say about it please.

  24. avatar
    Gillian

    upvoting and downvoting is all you need

  25. avatar
    Tinko

    The communist party is surely trying…?

  26. avatar
    Nori

    I don’t want to receive this email.

  27. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    Not only online!

    If one uses the broad definitions on that subject- it becomes clear(er) how best to confront this question.

    “Hate speech is speech that attacks a PERSON or a GROUP on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity” All good & well!

    Such attacks can also originate from a “GROUP” towards another group or person- not so? Nobody is exempt or has given immunity! There are no holy cows!

    Meaning: being “out of order” (egregious, objectionable, indecent, prohibited, unsound….) that could or lead to violence- is an OFFENCE in most countries.

    “Subjects” need to be “compliant”. Offences are dealt by a court of law. Politicians are only empowered to make laws in order to protect its citizenry, its decency & ethics- in the interest of all its citizens. They are not here to judge (decide)!

    Called separation of power!

    Charges are either being laid by a sole complainant or by an org like a Human Rights Commission. Each country has a variety of such laws woven into its legal system. An example of the interwoven safeguards of “Hate speech laws in the UK”:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech_laws_in_the_United_Kingdom

    Personal “self control” or self regulation by organizations (social media) is surely the preferable first option. Looking at examples where “self regulation” of e.g. Banks- operating in an extreme capitalistic (greedy US) system failed miserable in 2007- shows such insufficiency.

    Similarly, one could criticize and compare a political or religious concept like the extreme EU, destructive capitalism or communism, extreme Islam (ISIS) & corrupt dictatorships) as being unbecoming to many & shocking to others.

  28. avatar
    Peter

    Whats unlawful and whats illegal can be two different things

  29. avatar
    William

    Sex crimes are now and always have been illegal,if you partake in those things,you are breaking the law and likely traceable through your online activities…there is no need for anyone to tell me or anyone else what they should watch or listen to,we have right wing governments in the UK and USA,and I do not want them to have that kind of power…bad things happen in life…there is no solution to that, let’s at least make sure we have choices!

  30. avatar
    Roger

    Three words, ‘European Arrest warrant’! Can you imagine saying something online criticising the EU for example and then being carted off to face ‘justice’ in a foreign land and you can’t do anything about it!

  31. avatar
    Shadow Hand

    There is a massive censorship online of comments that are perfectly legal. I am not saying the comments are friendly or sound nice but they are legal. It doesn’t matter if you like what someone writes, or even if you disagree with it, if it is legal then they have a constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The one who doesn’t agree with an opinion is free to respond and say why you think they are wrong. Try writing something as simple as ”Islam is a lie”, or ”Send the refugees back”, you will see that almost certainly it will not be published, even though these are just as acceptable as ”Christianity is a lie” or ”we want more refugees”. There should be a criminal law to prosecute those who censor legal comments to guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of expression are protected.

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