European Union: EU Steps For Fighting Online Hate Speech – Possible Censorship Of Social Media?

Last Updated: 6 October 2017
Article by Roxana Pana

1. Why is the EU calling for policy measures (including censorship) against social media?

As of April 2017, fighting online hate speech has been prioritised at EU level further to several terrorist attacks (e.g., in London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels). Critics have argued that such attacks were to a great extent assisted by the intensive use of social media by terrorist groups to instigate violence and radicalise people, especially youngsters.

In this context, heated debates have taken place at EU level on the prevention and removal of online hate speech and the enactment of legislation that would define a common approach thereto. Furthermore, a number of views expressed in the European Parliament favoured censorship and public control of social media outlets.1 These views are shared by the British Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently called for new EU regulations and international agreements intended to "deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online".2

2. What is hate speech?

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes hate speech. Nevertheless, specific guidance for defining the concept has been provided by certain competent EU bodies.3 As such, "hate speech" is meant to cover all forms of expressions that spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including by reference to a non-exhaustive list of personal characteristics or statuses (e.g., race, colour, language, religion or beliefs, nationality or national or ethnic origin, descent, age, disability, sex, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation). Consequently, when grounded on these personal characteristics, hate speech may also target data that can easily qualify as "personal data" (e.g. age).

3. The EU's tentative steps towards fighting the growing hate speech challenge

The official plenary debate in the European Parliament on April 2017 hosted a robust discussion between its members on how best to tackle the proliferation of online hate speech, with a host of proposals being put forward, including:

  • Censorship or public control of social media;
  • Imposing significant fines on media providers; or
  • Fostering "media literacy" (i.e., the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, and create media)4.

In contrast, the members of the European Commission seem to favour a more peaceful approach, by cooperating with the IT industry and developing media literacy so that young people know how to critically assess information.5

In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2016, the European Commission intensified its work on fighting hate speech – a campaign initiated several years ago with the adoption of the Council Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA. Following consultations with the leading social media companies (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft), it published a Code of Conduct aimed at fighting online hate speech.6 This Code of Conduct includes a series of public commitments, voluntarily accepted by these four companies, as follows: (i) review of valid removal notifications for hate speech in less than 24 hours; (ii) removal or disabling access to such content, if necessary; (iii) continuous development of internal procedures; and (iv) staff training. A recent evaluation of the Code of Conduct, carried out by NGOs and public bodies in 24 EU countries (including Romania), revealed significant progress by the four companies on the commitments in the Code of Conduct.7 However, critics and some EU officials argue that these results are not yet satisfactory.

Further to these actions, the European Commission launched a High-Level Group on combating Racism, Xenophobia and other forms of Intolerance to step up EU cooperation and coordination regarding hate speech and monitor the implementation of the Code of Conduct. This group brings together Member States' authorities, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, civil society organisations, community representatives and other relevant international bodies.8 The European Commission has also launched several calls for project proposals that will be funded from EU grants.

The Council of Europe is also actively involved in fighting online hate speech. To this end, it has set up a dedicated body for human rights, i.e., the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which has devised a number of different policy responses, including legislative, self-regulatory and structural measures.9

As reported by the media, following the terrorist attack in Manchester, the ministers of the Council of Europe issued proposals on 23 May 2017 that require media providers to block videos containing hate speech, excluding live streaming from their platforms.10 If these proposals are agreed upon by the European Parliament, we will have the first legislation at EU level to hold social media companies accountable for hate speech published on their platforms. At this stage, it is not clear whether an enactment will be passed. However, censorship is a possibility, taking into consideration: (i) the opinions expressed in the plenary debate of April 2017; and (ii) the censorship enactment passed by the European Parliament on February 2017 for cutting down live broadcasts of parliamentary debates targeting hate speech and removing records video/audio traces of offensive remarks.

The opinions expressed by the EU Member States on censorship are divergent. German lawmakers approved a controversial law imposing steep fines of up to 50 million euros on social media providers for failing to swiftly delete posts deemed to contain hate speech.11 Such a restrictive measure was highly criticised by worldwide media, for the following reasons:

  • The law places a heavy burden on media providers for swift censorship in the absence of clear criteria defining hate speech;
  • Freedom of speech will be affected as providers are likely to delete many posts just to be on the safe side and avoid fines;
  • Courts, rather than social media, may determine what online speech contravenes German law; nevertheless, this approach is problematic due to the issue of determining which courts hold jurisdiction over companies such as Facebook. For instance, in 2016, a court in Hamburg denied a complaint filed against Facebook because the company's European operations were headquartered in Ireland.

Digital, advocacy groups and other critics in Europe have raised serious concerns about the new German law, which could be seen as a precedent to be followed by other EU countries – the more so with certain states having tried in the past to enact similar regulations (e.g., France)12 and recently UK officials having proposed similar fines for media providers if they fail to remove hate speech content13. Indeed, such an approach will deepen the conflict between the freedom of expression and the fight against hate speech.

4. Censorship / Public control of social media – Is this the right approach?

Could media freedom be subject to legal restrictions?

The restrictive measures regarding censorship and public control have raised many concerns about protecting, or not, "freedom of expression", while also protecting the victims of hate speech and other core EU values (e.g., tolerance, non-discrimination, dignity).

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had already expressed, by 1976, its opinion on what the term "right to freedom of expression" indicated and its significant role in a democratic society14. According to its repeated rulings, grounded on the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR holds that freedom of expression:

  • Constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, a basic condition for its progress and for the development of every individual;
  • It necessarily covers not only "information" or "ideas" that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also expression that may "offend, shock or disturb" the State or certain groups in society [o.n., which is not the same thing as a right to offend];
  • May be subject to any restriction (i.e., "condition", "restriction" or "penalty") which is "proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued"; such an approach is meant to protect other core European values (e.g., "tolerance" and "respect for equal dignity") affected by hate speech.15 Furthermore, the restriction must be construed strictly, and the need for any restrictions must be established convincingly, EU Member States having a certain margin of appreciation in assessing it.16

Along the same line of reasoning, the ECHR has argued for the importance of media freedom. To this end, it emphasises that the Internet has become one of the main means for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of expression today, as it offers essential tools for participation in activities and debates concerning politics or matters of general public interest.17 The ECHR ruled against the blanket blocking of access to an entire Google Sites website (Ahmet Yildirim v. Turkey) and to the whole of YouTube (Cengiz and Others v. Turkey), on account of other illicit contents uploaded by third parties on these sites.

Is censorship / public control of media a practical approach?

It is debatable whether the competent EU bodies and national authorities should impose censorship and public control, as long as:

  • The EU's broad concept of "hate speech" covers many forms of expression which are varied and complex; therefore, the approaches must also be appropriately differentiated;
  • Most EU states have adopted legislation banning expression amounting to hate speech, but the definitions differ when determining what is being banned; therefore, different national approaches to hate speech may easily give rise to discriminatory solutions;
  • Particular limitations of media freedom by censorship should be applied in a non-arbitrary matter and subject to ex post judicial control;
  • There is no sound and comprehensive common legal framework by which all the EU should abide; such a legal framework should be a prerequisite before imposing radical measures such as blanket censorship;
  • There are many measures which may prove successful, e.g., the development of web tools fighting online hate speech (such as reporting systems), awareness-raising activities, the exchange and monitoring of good practice (including with the help of the above-mentioned High-Level Group), the use of artificial intelligence to automatically remove potentially extremist material and banned news sites;
  • The major media providers have strengthened their efforts along with the European Commission by implementing the Code of Conduct and applying many worldwide training programmes and internal methods (web tools and artificial intelligence) for fighting hate speech;
  • Cooperation between media and public authorities may bring better results than censorship, a point of view that seems to be shared by the most important EU commissioners18;
  • Restrictive measures regarding censorship / public control may be subject to abuse from state authorities, increasing the power of the present European order (as many critics have noted in the media).

At this stage, the blanket censorship of media exercised by public authorities seems to be a common approach for states with a democracy in development. In 2016, five African countries, including Ethiopia and Uganda, disrupted the Internet during elections, while Kenya announced that it would act similarly in August 2017. Critics have strongly argued that such an approach is highhanded and open to abuse. One recent notable assertion was that "the free and open Internet becomes its own medicine because people are also using it to counter hate speech and rumours. But if we switch it off, the rumours will find other darker avenues and not be able to be counteracted."19

Although social media is an important tool used by terrorist groups to promote hate speech, it is not the only one they use to spread their messages. In such a context, many critics have argued that restricting the media (as certain EU officials have proposed) may not necessarily be the best solution. On the contrary, the focus should be primarily placed on other areas, such as raising public awareness around hate speech (especially among youngsters targeted by terrorist groups) and implementing a uniform EU regulation on "hate speech" – by defining this concept, determining appropriate measures for preventing and sanctioning hate speech, both by the public and media providers.


1.; speech-and-fake-news-remove-content-impose-fines-foster-media-literacy


3. Recommendation No. R (97) 20 of the Committee of Ministers of the European Council to EU Member States on "hate speech" (;
General Policy Recommendation No. 15: Combating hate speech from March 2016 of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) (

4. The concept of "media literacy" is detailed by the Council of Europe within the "Media Regulatory authorities and hate speech, July 2017 edition, pages 86-87 (

5. EC Communication outlining actions in seven specific areas where cooperation at EU level could effectively support Member States (









14. Handyside v. the United Kingdom judgment of the ECHR, para 49

15. Erbakan v. Turkey judgment of the ECHR, para 56; Gunduz v Turkey judgment of the ECHR, para 40

16. Surek v. Turkey judgment of the ECHR, para 58

17. Ahmet Yildirim v. Turkey judgment of the ECHR, para. 54



The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.