France to crack down on Twitter in wake of riots

France has proposed severe penalties on social media platforms such as Twitter and TikTok for what it says amounts to incitement to riot online. It sounds tough in theory, but the devil will be in the detail. And detail is precisely what’s lacking right now.

The controversial claim against social media, and no-less controversial proposed solution, comes from the French government in the wake of widespread rioting that broke out in the wake of the fatal shooting of teenager Nahel Merzouk by police last month in a suburb of Paris.

The killing of the 17-year-old by a police officer, who has since been charged with voluntary homicide under French law, sparked outrage in a country where ethnic minorities are regarded by many as being treated as second-class citizens, and alleged police racism is under intense scrutiny.

Reprisals that resulted from the ensuing civil unrest included a burning car being driven into the home of the Mayor of another Parisian suburb by rioters, reportedly injuring his wife and child.

Now, France is holding social media platforms responsible for fanning the flames of violent protest. It’s proposing adding a clause to its laws for securing and protecting the digital space, which Cybernews understands would compel platform operators to take down offending posts within two hours or face a year in jail and a fine of up to 250,000 euros.

“The news of recent days bears witness to the amplifying effects of social networks on riots and violent popular movements,” an addendum to the proposed clause says. “The proliferation of messages, images, videos, and live rebroadcasts of riots or violent popular movements amplifies participation in these riots or movements, increases the level of violence, leading to unacceptable attacks against persons holding public authority. Faced with the passivity of social networks, a firmer response is needed.”

That may well be the case, but this kind of response raises far more questions than it answers.

For starters, the proposed law does not make it clear precisely who would be liable. In the case of an infraction by, say, Twitter, would Elon Musk be held responsible? Or would the platform moderator on duty that day simply be made a scapegoat?

Or is it individual posters that would be punished? And what about somebody who thoughtlessly retweets or shares offending content — are they truly deserving of a year in prison and a quarter of a million euro debt for a single, albeit ill-advised, click?

Moreover, the mooted clause does not specify precisely who would get to determine what constitutes incitement. Can a platform moderator acting in good faith have their judgment overruled by the authorities in France, and what right of redress would they have to appeal a decision that threatens them with prison?

And just how would the penalty be enforced? Can we expect to see France extraditing, say, US big tech employees for offenses under the new law if moderators are indeed held responsible?

Lukazs Olejnik, a cyber analyst and industry pundit on Twitter, summed up the proposed move thusly: “French politicians accuse platforms (Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, etc.) of supporting riots. Immediate law proposal: platforms would have max two hours to remove such content. Otherwise, one year in prison and a fine of €250,000. Fast.”

A translation of the proposed amendment itself reads: “When there are riots or popular movements that undermine public order or public security and manifestly incite violence against persons holding public authority, the degradation of buildings or public facilities or intrusion into them, the competent administrative authority may issue removal injunctions against any online social networking service to remove or block access to content, within two hours from the receipt of the said injunction.”

Social media platforms are arguably crying out for regulation, as suggested by US Congress’s recent onslaught against TikTok. But one thing seems highly likely — this new amendment, if passed, will do little to quell the debate around issues like systemic police racism that are feeding the social media frenzy in the first place, nor is it likely in its present proposed form to hold trolls, inciters, or social media moguls responsible for their actions or omission of such.

Social media regulation should bring about systemic change throughout platforms or, if that’s impossible, enforce an outright ban if it’s in society’s net benefit to do so. On the other hand, holding a handful of hapless Twitter employees or sharers responsible with a knee-jerk reaction of a legal amendment will solve precisely nothing.

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