Amid Europe’s free speech debate, Twitter posts letter against EU rules policing online content

Amid Europe’s free speech debate, Twitter posts letter against EU rules policing online content
Source: Brendan McDermid, Reuters
The letter came as a major contribution to the conversation being had throughout Europe over freedom of speech, something that has been spurred on by recent events in France, Norway and England.

In an open letter published last Wednesday, Twitter, Mozilla, Automattic and Vimeo called for European Union legislators to reconsider the way new proposed legislation will handle harmful and illegal information posted online.

The letter claimed that the Digital Services Act and the Democracy Action Plan would exacerbate the role of internet gatekeepers without meaningfully dealing with some of the more constrictive issues facing the internet.

The companies spoke specifically against the way speech would be censored under the bill, advocating for “a content moderation discussion that emphasises the difference between illegal and harmful content and highlights the potential of interventions that address how content is surfaced and discovered.” They added, “Included in this is how consumers are offered real choice in the curation of their online environment.”

In the current draft of the legislation, illegal content and harmful content, as far as the companies controlling the content are concerned, are the same thing.

The letter came as a major contribution to the conversation being had throughout Europe over freedom of speech, something that has been spurred on by recent events in France, Norway and England.


In early October, Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher who showed his class a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a free speech lesson, was murdered by an Islamic extremist in a Parisian suburb, reigniting the country’s debate on free speech. Parents and teachers at the school said Paty gave students the opportunity to look away or leave the room when the photo was being shown.

The cartoon, published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was also the root cause of the killing of 11 of the magazine’s staff members and of six other Parisians in 2015.

Debates ignited across the country following Paty’s murder, with demonstrations appearing in major cities like Paris, Lyon and Marseille in defiance of the attack.

“This tragedy affects each and every one of us,” said French Prime Minister Jean Castex, “because, through this teacher, it is the republic that was attacked.”

Later in November, the French parliament voted to approve a highly debated law that would ban the publication of images of on-duty police officers as well as expand the powers of police surveillance, kindling the flames of the free speech debate in the country.

The legislation would make it illegal for anyone to spread images that might harm the “integrity” of police officers, with up to a year in prison or a €45,000 for offenders.

Journalists’ groups, unions and human rights groups organized protests in most major French cities, arguing that the law would limit freedom of expression and could result in police brutality going unpunished. Some have gone so far as to call it a “freedom-killing law.”


In late November, Reuters reported that Norway’s parliament passed legislation that outlawed hate speech against transgender people, expanding a penal code that has protected gay and lesbian people since the 1980s.

Amendments also included changing the language of the original legislation from “homosexual orientation” to “sexual orientation” to include bisexual people.

“I’m very relieved actually, because (the lack of legal protection) has been an eyesore for trans people for many, many years,” said Birna Rorslett, the vice president of the Association of Transgender People in Norway.

Hate speech offenders face a fine or up to a year in jail for private comments and up to three years for public comments.

Opponents of the bill have argued that it goes too far, limiting any speech that would be considered critical of LGBT+ rights.


The BBC reported last week that a vote on free speech by Cambridge University in England rejected guidelines that would require opinions to be “respectful,” after critics argued that the proposed guidelines would limit freedom of expression.

The regulation would have, if passed, require that students, staff and visiting speakers be respectful of the views of others.

Concern quickly grew within the university about the implications of these rules, arguing that they could lead to censorship of valid, if controversial, opinions, which could remove the opportunity to question meritless claims.

The wording of the regulation was later changed to say that freedom of speech ensures the right to express “controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of intolerance or discrimination.”

The big debate

The European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech to all citizens of member countries of the EU, was only passed in 1950. Europe has also put some limitations on free speech in the past, with many countries making hate speech and speech intended to incite violence illegal. This is in large part a direct result of the propaganda used in the Second World War.

But the conversation goes beyond just the discussion of free speech rights to include an economic argument. This argument is also addressed in the letter published by the tech companies.

If “harmful-but-legal content” is required to be censored on all online platforms, the approach “would benefit only the very largest companies in our industry,” the statement reads.

The companies argue that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to content policy cannot possibly encapsulate the diversity that exists within different platforms, adding that it would ultimately have a “disproportionate – and potentially crippling – impact on smaller players” in the industry.

The letter finished with a call for the EU to “consider our collective views while developing these historic laws which will likely govern our online lives for a generation.”

“In sum, we ask the EU to defend the Open Internet.”

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