In a press conference at the Élysée Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his focus on online regulation, and more particularly toxic content. He called for more international cooperation as the Group of Seven (G7) summit is taking place later this week in the U.K.
“The third big topic that could benefit from efficient multilateralism and that we’re going to bring up during this G7 summit is online regulation,” Macron said. “This topic, and I’m sure we’ll talk about it again, is essential for our democracies.”
Macron also used that opportunity to sum up France’s efforts on this front. “During the summer of 2017, we launched an initiative to tackle online terrorist content with then Prime Minister Theresa May. At first, and as crazy as it sounds today, we mostly failed. Because of free speech, people told us to mind our own business, more or less.”
In 2019, there was a horrendous mass mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. And you could find multiple copies of the shooting videos on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Macron invited New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, several digital ministers of the G7 and tech companies to Paris.
They all signed a nonbinding pledge called the Christchurch Call. Essentially, tech companies that operate social platforms agreed to increase their efforts when it comes to blocking toxic content — and terrorist content in particular.
Facebook, Twitter, Google (and YouTube), Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies signed the pledge. Seventeen countries and the European Commission also backed the Christchurch Call. There was one notable exception — the U.S. didn’t sign it.
“This strategy led to some concrete results because all online platforms that signed it have followed through,” Macron said. “Evidence of this lies in what happened in France last fall when we faced terrorist attacks.” In October 2020, French middle-school teacher Samuel Paty was killed and beheaded by a terrorist.
“Platforms flagged content and removed content within an hour,” he added.
Over time, more countries and online platforms announced their support for the Christchurch Call. In May, President Joe Biden joined the international bid against toxic content. “Given the number of companies incorporated in the U.S., it’s a major step and I welcome it,” Macron said today.
But what comes next after the Christchurch Call? First, Macron wants to convince more countries to back the call — China and Russia aren’t part of the supporters for instance.
“The second thing is that we have to push forward to create a framework for all sorts of online hate speech, racist speech, anti-Semitic speech and everything related to online harassment,” Macron said.
He then briefly referred to French regulation on this front. Last year, French regulation on hate speech on online platforms has been widely deemed as unconstitutional by France’s Constitutional Council, the top authority in charge of ruling whether a new law complies with the constitution.
The list of hate-speech content was long and broad while potential fines were very high. The Constitutional Council feared that online platforms would censor content a bit too quickly.
But that doesn’t seem to be stopping Macron from backing new regulation on online content at the European level and at the G7 level.
“It’s the only way to build an efficient framework that we can bring at the G20 summit and that can help us fight against wild behavior in online interactions — and therefore wild behavior in our new world order,” Macron said, using the controversial “wild behavior” metaphor (ensauvagement). That term was first popularized by far-right political figures.
According to him, if world leaders fail to find some common ground when it comes to online regulation, it’ll lead to internet fragmentation. Some countries may choose to block several online services for instance.
And yet, recent events have showed us that this ship has sailed already. The Nigerian government suspended Twitter operations in the country just a few days ago. It’s easy to agree to block terrorist content, but it becomes tedious quite quickly when you want to moderate other content.