Europe has cemented its reputation as being one of the toughest enforcers of Silicon Valley tech companies, and rightly so. Throughout Europe, people have had questionable social media posts taken down in accordance with laws determining violent content, hate speech and misinformation.
In February, the European Parliament approved a controversial copyright law that would effectively mandate content filtering. This past April, the Parliament backed a proposal that would give them the power to sanction up to 4 percent of tech companies’ revenue for persistent instances of terrorist content on their platforms.
In theory, these kinds of laws look necessary and practical. Terror groups take to social media because of its ease of use and the ability to engage with huge groups of people. Misinformation has become rife in recent years; both France and the United States accuse Russian state actors of meddling in their respective presidential elections by fostering “fake news” online.
Germany passed a law requiring tech companies to quickly remove hate speech from their platforms. That law is now under revision after criticism that too much online content was being blocked. These utopian laws are controversial because of their glaring ambiguities. For example, Singapore passed a law requiring social media sites to remove comments against “public interest.” Defining such ambiguous statements is largely subjective; as a result, governments now wield new power to censor content and potentially to stifle dissent.
The caveat of free speech is that everyone is allowed to have their own opinion, no matter how stupid or sinister you think it is. While terrorist organizations are an extreme example of the spectrum’s bounds, their media presence is a necessary evil. Right now, social media companies do not have algorithms with the accuracy to exactly filter what constitutes a speech violation. As Germany’s revision shows, even social media posts containing memes and satire that don’t violate their standards have the potential to be blocked.
Additionally, enforcing ever-increasingly stricter censorship laws are short term knee-jerk reactions to a wider problem. If the European Union is so concerned about combating terrorist recruitment, it needs to attack the problem’s grassroots.
One such example is when Sal Shafi, a Silicon Valley executive, reported his son’s radical behavior to the government. Instead of putting his son Adam through a rehabilitation program, the government locked him up for 15 years. As a result, Mr. Shafi now regrets ever calling the government for help, a sentiment shared by many parents whose kids flirt with terror. Until governments give off the impression that they are on the people’s side, communities will not be compelled to synergize with the government.
The West has long heralded itself as the champion of individual freedom. With the growing body of censorship legislation, it only sets a precedent for even tighter laws in the future. As the West continues to take steps in the direction of censorship programs like the Great Firewall of China, it tarnishes the fabric of its principles. Literary works such as “1984” serve as a warning to what could happen when the government continues to advance its power unchecked. It’s up to us to become self-aware and prevent Big Brother.