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Editorial: Europe’s well-meaning but heavy-handed move against jihadist propaganda

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Counter-terrorism experts say that Islamic State has made expert use of social media to spread its jihadist message, helping to fuel its rapid growth and international reach. That’s why governments around the world have pushed Facebook, Twitter and other leading social media outlets to stop serving as recruiting tools for Islamic State’s death squads.

This week, the European Commission took a more forceful step. The commission announced that it had reached agreement with four U.S. companies operating major social-media outlets — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft — on a new “code of conduct on illegal online hate speech.” The companies, all of which do business globally, committed to several actions aimed at removing jihadist material from their sites and promoting “independent counter-narratives” and “educational programs that encourage critical thinking.”

The code of conduct was presented as a set of voluntary commitments closely tracking what the four companies say they’ve been doing on their own initiatives. But it’s not as if they could have blithely refused to cooperate. Under European law, certain types of hate speech are illegal and must be removed on request. The commission also is a highly active regulator — much more so than U.S. authorities are — having launched antitrust, tax and privacy enforcement actions against some or all of the four companies. In other words, they would have ignored the commission at their peril.

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As eager as we all may be to stem the proliferation of violent online propaganda, the commission’s move could lead the companies to censor legal speech as well. Rather than leaving companies to set their own terms of use, the code of conduct mandates that such rules “prohibit the promotion of incitement to violence and hateful conduct,” which is a vaguer and broader category than what European governments have outlawed. And it would fast-track the removal of content flagged by advocacy groups and other non-governmental organizations blessed by European officials, leaving those whose posts are blocked online with no due-process rights (the companies say they have internal appeals processes, but that’s a far cry from the court-supervised process under U.S. copyright law).

At issue here are some of the most important communications channels of the 21st century. The code of conduct essentially calls for the private companies that control those channels to work with European governments in a non-transparent, extra-legal way to block speech that government doesn’t like. That mandate may seem acceptable in light of our common opposition to Islamic State’s online recruiting efforts. But a likely consequence is that in their efforts to comply, the companies will block legal content that’s edgy, satiric or simply misunderstood.

Worse, the code could set a precedent for other countries to force Internet companies to restrain speech more than their laws dictate or global principles of human rights support. For example, what if a repressive regime demands that social networks adopt rules banning “incitement to instability” or other code words for dissent?

Similarly, it’s laudable that Facebook et al. are pledging to help non-governmental groups respond more quickly and effectively to jihadist messaging. For those efforts to be effective, though, they have to be authentic, not tinged with a patina of state coercion. The companies can certainly help the anti-jihadist groups make better use of the tools their networks provide for identifying and reaching the right audience in a timely way, but they have to be careful to leave the actual messaging to the messengers.

The code of conduct is just one piece of a multi-pronged effort by European governments to crack down on terrorist and hate-group propaganda online. Those recruiting materials are a real problem, and Europe has already felt the tragic consequences. But just as the United States has struggled to find the right balance between security and civil liberties, so too must the commission be careful not to squelch legal speech. The new code of conduct may be well-meaning, but it would have been better to have a truly voluntary effort by social networks backed by real due-process protections.

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