News Brief

France ‘fake-news law’ courts censorship controversy

With the ink not yet dry, France’s anti-fake news law is already embroiled in controversy — underscoring the global debate about who should judge what is harmful online behavior.

Last week, Twitter blocked a French government voter registration account in compliance with the new law that forces social media advertising and political campaigns to reveal their funding sources, or else be removed by social networks.

The irony was not lost on many that the get-out-the-vote campaign run by the government became a target of the law intended to weaken anti-democratic forces. Some members of parliament who read that the @OuiJeVote (Yes, I Vote) campaign had been blocked by Twitter even initially believed the news itself was fake: “I thought it was an April fools!” tweeted MP Naima Moutchou.

The French legislation is not the first European law meant to curb the spread of disinformation that has had unintended, anti-democratic consequences.

This week in the UK, government officials tried to persuade citizens that its new internet regulation policy would not lead to “North Korean-style censorship,” as culture secretary Jeremy Wright put it. But critics warned that the proposed regulation was so broad that it could be applied to the entirety of the internet and used to block any website, even though the legislation is intended to monitor the spread of terrorist and self-harm content on the internet.

In the other European country with a fake-news law, Germany, human rights groups warned the nation’s 2018 law introducing a 24-hour deadline for social media platforms to remove hate speech and fake news would set a “dangerous precedent” for authoritarian rulers to follow.

Since then, authoritarian regimes around the world have cited the German precedent for their own attempts to curb online news, which their governments deride as “fake” but opposition movements say is fair criticism.

In Singapore, a 10 year prison sentence awaits violators who don’t include warnings on posts that, according to the government, are false or are against the “public interest.”

And in Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov directly compared a newly-signed law criminalizing “disrespect” of the state online to recent laws passed in Europe banning “fake news.”

“It is therefore of course necessary to do it in our country too,” said Peskov.