The EU has just announced an agreement with major internet providers such as Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft under which material deemed to be “hate speech” will be removed from the internet within 24 hours. However, we have serious concerns that the definition of hate speech is so vague it could effectively censor anything deemed politically incorrect, including for example, any criticism of Islamism, mass migration or even the European Union itself. This could have serious implications for Christian organisations such as Barnabas Fund which are reporting on the persecution of Christians, such as converts from Islam.
The new code of conduct has been criticised by some members of the European parliament as “Orwellian” (a reference to the George Orwell’s novel 1984 written shortly after WW2 which describes a future world where people’s lives are closely watched and controlled by the state, which even seeks to enforce an invented language called “Newspeak” to prevent political dissent by eliminating all words related to it).
The code of conduct which was announced on 31st May commits IT companies to work with what it terms ‘civil society organisations’ to flag and remove comments deemed offensive within 24 hours. The National Secular Society has warned that the agreement between the EU and IT companies risks censoring any critical discussion of Islam:
“Far from tackling online ‘cyber jihad,’ the agreement risks having the exact opposite effect and entrapping any critical discussion of religion under vague ‘hate speech’ rules. Poorly-trained Facebook or Twitter staff, perhaps with their own ideological bias, could easily see heated criticism of Islam and think it is ‘hate speech,’ particularly if pages or users are targeted and mass reported by Islamists.”
It added that:
“The agreement comes amid repeated accusations from ex-Muslims that social media organizations are censoring them online. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain has now begun collecting examples from its followers of Facebook censoring ‘atheist, secular and ex-Muslim content’ after false ‘mass reporting’ by ‘cyber Jihadists.’ They have asked their supporters to report details and evidence of any instances of pages and groups being ‘banned [or] suspended from Facebook for criticizing Islam and Islamism.'”
There is an enormous danger that this new code of conduct will be misused to undermine freedom of religion and freedom of speech. It will effectively allow Islamist organisations to tell IT companies that any material critical of Islam – including that relating to conversion from Islam or persecution of Christians by Muslims is “offensive” and must be immediately removed. The implications of this are chilling.
The origin of this policy appears to have been an EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights which was set up in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This colloquium was to have focused on protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press, instead it ended up focusing on combatting “Islamophobia”.
By adopting this policy the EU is therefore restricting freedom of the press, something that has existed as a historic national value in countries such as the UK for over 300 years. It is giving Islamic organisations the power to censor any online comments critical of Islam, including those discussing the rapidly spreading persecution of Christians in Muslim majority contexts. Even worse it is doing so not directly, in a way in which it might perhaps be held to account by the electorate, but via commercial companies.
The latter is particularly significant as there have recently been significant concerns raised about both political bias within search engines such as Google and censorship of internet posts by Facebook. In September 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was overheard on a live microphone confronting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on what he was doing to prevent criticism of her open-door immigration policies.While award winning Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh who works for the Jerusalem Post had his Facebook account suspended after he wrote about corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Abu Toameh believes that Facebook censored his account in response to complaints from anti-Israel activists.
To put this new EU regulation into some historical context. In 1694 the UK parliament effectively ended press censorship by not renewing the 1643 licensing order that allowed search, seizure and destruction of all books deemed to be “offensive” to the government. The EU is now effectively reintroducing online press censorship – with any posts deemed offensive by either itself or the staff of internet companies being destroyed.
This poses a significant risk to both freedom of the press and freedom of religion, including potentially our ability to write about the causes of Christian persecution in Muslim-majority contexts.