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Facebook will let French regulators study its efforts to fight hate speech

France's President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Internet Governance Forum organized by UNESCO in Paris on Nov. 12. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AP)

Facebook will open its doors for French regulators to study its approach to combating hate speech online, marking the latest attempt by governments around the world to figure out new ways to thwart toxic, derogatory content from spreading on social media.

Under a six-month arrangement announced on Monday, French investigators will monitor Facebook’s policies and tools for stopping posts and photos that attack people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender. From there, aides to French President Emmanuel Macron hope to determine “the necessary regulatory and legislative developments” to fight online hate speech, a government official said.

In recent months, France and its fellow European countries have adopted a much harder line against Facebook and its social-media peers, demanding they police their platforms more aggressively to stop a range of digital ills — including conspiracy theories, fake news and terrorist propaganda. Macron pressed Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on the issue when the two met in Paris earlier this year.

On Monday, though, Facebook described the new French effort on hate speech as “co-regulatory."

“As Mark Zuckerberg has said, with the Internet growing in importance in people's lives we believe that there will be need for regulation,” added Nick Clegg, Facebook's new vice president for global affairs. “The best way to ensure that any regulation is smart and works for people is by governments, regulators and businesses working together to learn from each other and explore ideas.”

Facebook and its Silicon Valley counterparts, including Google-owned YouTube and Twitter, generally outlaw content that attacks people on the basis of their identity, endorses discrimination or threatens violence. In recent months, they’ve hired thousands of employees — and invested in new machine-learning tools — to spot and remove racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech from their services.

But their challenge in stamping out such content hasn’t abated: Between Jan. 1 and March 31, Facebook said it had taken action against roughly 2.5 million posts, photos and other kinds of content for violating its rules against hate speech, according to a report released earlier this year. That marked a spike from the previous quarter, though Facebook attributed the rise to “improvements in our detection technology."

In the United States, hate speech generally is protected under the First Amendment, so members of Congress have been hesitant to write a new law even amid broad, bipartisan disgust with the spread of hate-tinged content online.

In Europe, though, there’s been a greater appetite to regulate. Germany, for example, began enforcing new rules in January that fine tech giants for failing to take down hate speech within a day. The European Union, meanwhile, recently has proposed levying steep penalties on sites that fail to spot and take down terrorist content within an hour.

On Monday, France’s Macron also heralded governments in Europe and around the world that have signed onto high-level principles that call for greater trust and safety online, including clamping down on malicious actors who are trying to undermine “electoral processes through malicious cyber activities.” The United States does not appear to have signed the “Paris Call,” and the White House did not respond to a request for comment.

“Today the Internet is much better used by extremes, authoritarian regimes or terrorist propaganda than by our democracies,” Macron said about the document Monday. “It’s a reality against which we must fight.”

France’s new efforts come in the wake of Macron’s earlier attempt to combat “fake news” through a new bill adopted in July. His 2017 presidential campaign had been the target of a major data dump as well as a coordinated misinformation campaign, and the subject has been a priority for Macron since he took office.

The “fake news law,” as it has come to be called, will allow French judges to halt the publication of information determined to be either false or “implausible.” When the law was introduced in June, it ran into sharp criticism by those on the right and the left who insisted that it would infringe on the freedom of speech and could, under the wrong leadership, be used to create a modern “thought police.”

A fairly extensive body of hate speech restrictions already exists under French law. The country has prohibited the incitement of racial hatred since 1972, and a separate provision, known as the Gayssot law, criminalized Holocaust denial in 1990.