IF Britain needed another reason to leave the sclerotic European Union, then the European Court of Justice has provided one.
On October 3, the ECJ ruled that the courts of EU member states may order Facebook – and by implication any social media company – to remove comments and posts deemed illegal by that state worldwide.
While it is unclear how a worldwide ban would be enforced, the ECJ could enforce one within the EU, and the upshot is that the most draconian censorship laws of any member state will be given effect throughout the Union.
As Facebook pointed out, this ‘undermines the long-standing principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country’.
In the case in question, the ECJ upheld the order of an Austrian court that Facebook Ireland must ‘remove a comment published by a user on that social network harmful to (the claimant’s) reputation, and allegations which were identical and/or of an equivalent content.’
The requirement to remove ‘equivalent content’ is very likely to involve the use of automated filters, which will imperfectly identify such content and therefore represent an additional potentially massive infringement of free speech as unrelated and inoffensive content is removed by mistake.
There are already some fearsome censorship laws on the books in EU member states. A controversial 2017 German law, for instance, requires all social media platforms to delete or block content deemed a criminal offence such as libel, slander, defamation or incitement within 24 hours of receiving a complaint, on pain of a fine of up to 50million euros.
‘Incitement’ is getting very close to hate speech – the Left’s favourite way of closing down conservative discourse. Indeed, France is currently in the process of passing a law that will give social media platforms 24 hours to remove ‘hateful content’ or be hit with a fine of up to four per cent of their global revenue.
What counts as hate is, as we know, an ever-shifting landscape largely defined by the sensitivities of the Left’s client victim groups. To racism and sexism (themselves with ever-widening definitions, such as criticising open-doors immigration or complimenting a woman’s looks) we have recently seen added homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia, among others.
While real prejudice certainly exists with respect to these groups, the problem with making such supposedly ‘hateful’ speech illegal rests on what counts as ‘hateful’ rather than merely critical, humorous or indeed harmless, and who gets to decide.
In this country we have a long tradition of affirming free speech because we believe in the importance of making space for truth and integrity, and because we don’t trust those in authority not to suppress speech merely because they don’t like it, disagree with it, or find it uncomfortable or inconvenient.
This means permitting within a wide scope speech that might risk being offensive or having harmful real-world effects – not because we think it’s good to be offensive or harmful, but because some offence must be tolerated and some risks taken for the sake of the more important goal of keeping society free and ensuring that truth cannot be forever buried.
This noble tradition of free speech is now at risk across Europe from illiberal laws such as those of Germany and France, and the ECJ has ensured that the whole European Union will be ensnared by the measures passed in the very worst.
Thank goodness we’re leaving. We are leaving, aren’t we?