LONDON — In Spain, activists were convicted for social media posts that violated an expanded antiterrorism law. The Twitter accounts of German citizens were blocked because of rules enacted last year that prohibit hate speech. And a Dutch court determined Google must remove search results about a doctor punished for poor performance, in compliance with a privacy law.
Heralded as the world’s toughest watchdog of Silicon Valley technology giants, Europe has clamped down on violent content, hate speech and misinformation online through a thicket of new laws and regulations over the past five years. Now there are questions about whether the region is going too far, with the rules leading to accusations of censorship and potentially providing cover to some governments to stifle dissent.
The unintended consequences may be compounded as European governments pursue more laws and policies to restrict what communication can be shared online. Last month, Britain proposed appointing an internet regulator who would be empowered to block websites it considers harmful. The European Union is separately debating a law that would require tech companies to quickly remove terrorist-related content online.
With the growing body of European legislation, “there will be a lower standard for protection of freedom of expression,” said David Kaye, a University of California, Irvine, law professor whom the United Nations appointed to spotlight government efforts to restrict free speech. He added that Europe’s rules erode what had been a shared belief among the United States and other Western democracies to avoid censoring social media posts, YouTube videos, discussion forums and other internet content.
The debate in Europe illustrates the difficulties that governments face as they try to regulate the most corrosive material on the internet without choking off individual expression. That is set to flare up elsewhere as other countries also move to pass new laws or impose restrictions on online material.
In Sri Lanka, authorities shut off access to social media sites after coordinated terrorist attacks last month left hundreds dead. New Zealand and Australia have put forward restrictions on tech companies after the March massacre of 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, where the accused gunman used social media to amplify his message. Singapore has also proposed a law to curtail false or misleading information, which critics warned could be used to silence dissent. And India is considering giving itself new powers to suppress digital content.
Tech companies themselves are asking for more regulation, rather than delegating enforcement responsibility to their platforms. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, invited Congress in March to set rules for the social network, adding it “would be useful to spell out clearly what the responsibilities that we want companies and people and governments to have.” On Thursday, Facebook added to the censorship debate when it proactively barred several extremists, including the Infowars founder Alex Jones, from its platform.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, a European Commissioner pushing for stricter oversight of the internet, said government intervention was an appropriate response to how social media was being used to glorify terrorism, manipulate elections and spread hateful ideologies. “The new battleground is the internet,” he said.
Ian Russell, who has criticized Instagram and other internet companies for not doing enough to remove self-harm material that he says contributed to his teenage daughter’s 2017 suicide, said most people will accept reasonable restrictions of the internet if it means cleaning up what’s most toxic.
“We would not consider ourselves to be living in a dictatorship and happily abide by rules and laws,” said Mr. Russell, a Briton who now runs the suicide prevention charity, Molly Rose Foundation.
But some Europeans are grappling with the fallout.
Jörg Rupp, 53, a social worker and political activist in the western German town of Malsch, said he was swept up in Europe’s new laws. In January 2018, he posted a tweet with altered lyrics to a German song called “The Anarchist Pig,” adding derisive words about asylum seekers and Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Within three hours, his Twitter account was banned. Germany has one of the world’s strictest hate-speech laws, the Network Enforcement Act, which had recently taken effect when Mr. Rupp tweeted. The law mandates that internet companies remove offensive material within 24 hours or face fines of up to 50 million euros, or about $56 million.
Mr. Rupp said the tweet was satire, an attempt to use the language of right-wing groups to show their cruelty. “It’s dangerous at the moment to be ironic,” he said. “That’s not good for free speech.”
Mr. Rupp, who has more than 2,000 followers on Twitter, said he sent several emails to Twitter’s help line and pointed to his other tweets in which he voiced support for immigrants. The company rejected his pleas, he said. He then spent 450 euros, about $500, to hire a lawyer to reactivate his account. Now, he said, he is careful about what he shares online.
Twitter said Mr. Rupp’s account was blocked for violating its terms of service. After a post like Mr. Rupp’s is flagged by a user, Twitter considers whether it violates internal policies before going through the procedures of the Network Enforcement Act. Last year, the company received more than 500,000 complaints about posts under the German law. It took down about 10 percent; it doesn’t specify how many of the removals were classified as violating Twitter’s policies versus breaking the law.
Wolfgang Schulz, the research director at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin, said the German law hasn’t led to widespread blocking of online content as some initially feared. But it raises questions about requiring internet companies to moderate speech, rather than courts or other public institutions. In the face of political pressure to clean up their platforms, “the easier option is to take content down,” he said.
In a statement, Twitter said “freedom of expression is our fundamental guiding principle.” It added, “regulation needs to strike an appropriate balance between keeping people safe online and preserving their inalienable human rights, and protecting the nature of a free, open internet.” Google and Facebook declined to comment.
Mr. Rupp’s experience has been echoed elsewhere, according to watchdog groups. Amnesty International said more than 60 people had been convicted in Spain for what they posted online under an antiterrorism law that was expanded in 2015 to include social media content.
One was Cassandra Vera. She was 21 when she was convicted by the Spanish authorities in 2017 over tweets in which she said she was joking about the assassination of a member of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. “I hadn’t done anything bad and yet I was still detained when I was an innocent person,” said Ms. Vera, whose one-year sentence was ultimately suspended after her case became a flash point in Spain’s free speech debate
A European privacy standard from 2014, known as the Right to Be Forgotten and which lets people petition Google to remove search results about themselves, has also been criticized for blocking legitimate material. Since 2016, newspapers in Belgium and Italy have removed articles from their archives under the law. Google was also ordered last year to stop listing some search results, including information from 2014 about a Dutch doctor who The Guardian reported was suspended for poor care of a patient.
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, said the incidents represented a warning. Europe’s regulatory efforts may Balkanize the internet, in which the content available online changes based on where a person is, he said.
“Unlike a global resource where we’re sharing information and knowledge, we end up with something severely crippled,” he said.
The move to regulate internet platforms in Europe has been gathering momentum. Last month, the European Parliament passed a law requiring companies to remove terrorist-related content within one hour or risk fines of up to 4 percent of global revenue. The measure must go through several more legislative steps before being enacted.
Critics said the proposed law doesn’t clearly define what constitutes objectionable content and delegates too much responsibility to tech companies. In December, United Nations representatives warned the proposed rule “may lead to infringements to the right to access to information, freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and impact interlinked political and public interest processes.”
And in Britain, the government last month proposed sweeping new powers to remove “harmful” content from the internet, including material supporting terrorism, inciting violence, encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyberbullying and inappropriate material accessible to children.
Human rights groups warn the public backlash against tech companies is being used as a pretext to censor speech. At least 17 countries including Malaysia, Egypt and Kenya have cited the spread of “fake news” when adopting or proposing new internet restrictions, according to Freedom House, a pro-democracy group tracking government internet policies.
Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Without Borders, a group tracking internet freedom globally, said Europe’s activities normalize the removal of content.
“Freedom of expression,” she said, “relies solely on the possibility your content won’t be suppressed arbitrarily.”