EU Cheers Tech Giants' Commitment to Tackling Online Hate Speech

By Natalia Drozdiak Features Dow Jones Newswires

Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube, Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have doubled their efforts over the past six months to remove hate speech and other information that incites acts of terror from their platforms, the European Union said Thursday.

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The assessment is welcome news for the companies, which face growing pressure from Europe's national governments to do more to address racist and xenophobic content.

The EU report evaluates the impact of a common code of conduct that the four tech companies agreed on a year ago. They pledged to review precise and substantial complaints regarding users' behavior within 24 hours of receipt and cut off access to the content, if required.

The European Commission, the bloc's executive, said the tech companies removed illegal hate-speech content 59% of the time when it was flagged for review, up from a rate of 28% that the commission reported six months ago.

EU Justice Chief Vera Jourova said the results of the report were encouraging. "This is an important step in the right direction," Ms. Jourova said. "At the same time, companies carry a great responsibility and need to make further progress to deliver on all the commitments."

Internet companies have faced increased pressure from authorities to speed up the removal of terrorist content and hate speech following a number of recent deadly attacks in Europe and calls online to burn down refugee shelters built for a wave of migrants to Europe from the Middle East in recent years.

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Some European governments, such as Germany, are already planning national legislation in the area.

The Internet Society, an open-internet advocacy group, said regulatory measures requiring the removal of hate speech could prompt companies to remove more content than necessary to avoid fines.

"This could have the opposite effect by encouraging over-blocking of content, including content that is perfectly legal," said Kathryn Brown, Internet Society's chief executive.

The companies had already endeavored to remove illegal information when it is reported, but face criticism that they don't do so rapidly enough or take enough of the content down. The tech firms say they are wary of initiatives that infringe on freedom of expression.

Ms. Jourova said she would hear from German Justice Minister Heiko Maas next week at a gathering of national justice ministers about his reasoning in implementing national legislation on the removal of hate speech.

The EU justice chief said she would present the report as a success because the voluntary agreement by the tech companies is helping bring immediate results. By contrast, legislation at EU-level would take years to implement and delay take-down action by the companies, she said.

The EU said it expected the companies to be more open about their criteria for analyzing flagged content and providing feedback to users.

The commission said the number of notifications reviewed within 24 hours increased to 51% from 40% over the past six months, but that Facebook was "the only company that fully achieves the target of reviewing the majority of notifications within the day" and that the company sends systematic feedback to users on how their notifications have been assessed.

Facebook also received 1,273 notifications during the seven-week review period--the largest number among the four companies. YouTube and Twitter received around half that number and Microsoft received none.

Write to Natalia Drozdiak at natalia.drozdiak@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 01, 2017 07:34 ET (11:34 GMT)