Facebook seeks exemption from Government’s proposed hate speech laws

Technology companies worried about ‘onerous obligations’

Facebook petitioned the Irish Government last year to exclude it from criminal liability under proposed laws against hate speech and hate crime.

In 2019, the Government ran a public consultation ahead of plans to draft more robust laws against incitement to hatred, particularly on the internet and social media.

Facebook, one of 57 groups which responded to the consultation, submitted that any strengthened laws against internet hate speech must contain a “carve out” to protect “intermediaries” from being held responsible for content published on their platforms.

A roadmap for the hate speech legislation, which was released by the Department of Justice on Thursday, recommends it become an offence to share hate speech on social media, if the intention is to incite hated. This would apply to sharing other's posts on Facebook and retweeting items on Twitter.

However, any company accused of hosting hateful material should be able to defend itself by showing that it has measures in place to prevent dissemination of hateful material and was complying with those measures at the time, the report states.

The company should also show it was unaware and had no reason to suspect the content could incite hate.

The Bill has yet to be drafted and it is unclear what extra obligations, if any, it will place on social media companies.

In Facebook's submission, the company's head of public policy in Ireland, Dualta Ó Broin, listed Facebook's work in combatting hate speech, including taking action against seven million pieces of content between July and September 2019.

It said it “welcomes” Government taking a more active role in addressing harmful online content and suggested additional protected categories be added to the legislation including age, sex, disability, caste, gender, gender identity and serious disease.

These are similar to the categories contained in Facebook’s own community standards.

However, Facebook also submitted that online communication was already covered by the existing Prohibition on the Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 which, according to the Government, has proven to be largely ineffective.

It said any amendment to the Act should “include a carve out so that intermediaries would not be subject to criminal liability for third-party content that violates the Act”.

This “carve out” will be “particularly important” if the new laws criminalise the simple distribution or display of hateful content “as intermediaries could then be held liable for content over which they have no control”.

International pressure

Internationally, pressure has been growing on Facebook this year to do more about hate speech. In July, more than 1,000 companies, including Coca Cola and Unilever, took part in a boycott of its advertising services to protest the issue.

The consultation process also heard from Technology Ireland which lobbies on behalf of Irish and foreign direct investment technology companies, including Google, Twitter and Microsoft. It said it supports protecting all members of society from hate crime but "impractical or excessively onerous" obligations regarding hate speech should not be placed on online platforms.

In particular, there should be exceptions for cloud-based platforms as these service providers are unable to remove individual pieces of content from their networks.

The consultation also received about 3,500 answers to an online questionnaire. Many of these supported the strengthening of hate speech laws while many others raised freedom of expression concerns, according to documents released to The Irish Times.

Some also suggested protected categories should be widened to include groups such as Irish speakers and cyclists.