France’s misguided efforts to grapple with hate speech—which is already prohibited by French law—have been making headlines for years. In 2012, after an horrific attack on a Jewish school, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed criminal penalties for anyone visiting websites that contain hate speech. An anti-terror law passed in December imposes greater penalties on those that “glorify terrorism” online (as opposed to offline), and allows websites engaging in the promotion of terrorism to be blocked with little oversight. And following the attack on Charlie Hebdo last month, Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated that “it will be necessary to take further measures” to address the threat of terrorism.
Despite such a history, the latest proposal to emerge from the country is shocking. At the World Economic Forum last week, President Francois Hollande called on corporations to “fight terror,” stating:
The big operators, and we know who they are, can no longer close their eyes if they are considered accomplices of what they host. We must act at the European and international level to define a legal framework so that Internet platforms which manage social media be considered responsible, and that sanctions can be taken.
In effect, Hollande’s proposal seeks to hold social media companies accountable for the speech that they host. This is antithetical to US law, where online service providers are explicitly exempted from being treated as publishers, with few exceptions, thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.