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France: ARTICLE 19 comments on interim report for social media regulation

In May 2019, the French government published an interim report on social media regulation. It is one of a range of regulatory proposals in this area, including in the United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland and Canada. ARTICLE 19 welcomes the Report’s positive framing and declared commitment to ensure protection of human rights and freedom of expression online. The focus on accountability by design and recognition of fundamental rights as the basis of any co-regulatory mechanisms are particularly laudable. As the French government fully develops this proposal, it should ensure that any proposals to regulate social media do not entrench private censorship, mandatory filters and content take-downs within unreasonable timeframes and does not consolidate the dominance of the major tech companies. ARTICLE 19 also suggests closer investigation of contractual and technical unbundling to reduce market entry barriers and increase the number of markets where diversity of service and products is offered.

ARTICLE 19 generally welcomes the constructive tone of the Report. Its framing rightly focuses on transparency and accountability as the core objectives of any framework for social media regulation. Placing the protection of individual freedoms at the heart of any regulatory framework of social networks is equally welcome. We also appreciate that the proposals do not ostensibly seek to regulate ‘harmful’ content online but seek to focus instead on transparency obligations. In our view, its focus on ‘dominant’ (biggest) social media actors is a more practical approach to the challenges raised by content moderation rather than seeking to regulate a wider range of operators in the Internet ecosystem, such as public discussion forums, online product review sites or cloud hosting providers. Recognising the need for inclusive dialogue between companies, government, regulators and civil society is also a positive step forward.

In the absence of further detail, however, ARTICLE 19 recommends further elaboration of the proposal to ensure that the French model avoids raising the same substantive issues as its German,[1] British[2] and EU[3] counterparts. We therefore make a number of suggestions in our response to the document, in order to ensure full protection of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.

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[1] ARTICLE 19, Germany: Act to Improve Enforcement of the Law on Social Networks undermines free expression, September 2017.

[2] ARTICLE 19, UK: ARTICLE 19 response to leaked reports on online harms white paper, April 2019.

[3] ARTICLE 19, Joint letter on European Commission regulation on online terrorist content, December 2018.