Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Hungary follows Poland to take on Big Tech ‘censors’

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Hungary and Poland intend to take action against social media companies to tackle what they see as prejudice against conservatives.

Judit Varga, Hungary’s Minister of Justice, announced last week following the permanent expulsion of former US President Donald Trump from Facebook and Twitter that the Prime Minister’s hardline government Viktor Orban would not tolerate intrusions on freedom of expression. Earlier in January, the Polish conservative-nationalist administration proposed legislation that would allow social media companies to be fined for removing posts that do not violate Polish law.

The announcements came as the EU strives to take a coordinated approach to policing social media content. As many Western European countries attempt to tackle the spread of violent far-right or extremist religion-based rhetoric, Eastern European states say they are determined to tackle what Ms Varga called the censorship “deliberate and ideological” on social media.

In a recent Facebook post, Ms Varga said she intended to submit a bill in the spring to “regulate the domestic operations of large tech companies.”

“Today, anyone can be disconnected from the online space without the possibility of a formal, transparent and fair process and legal recourse,” she wrote. She alleged in a previous article that she was “banned from the shadows” by Facebook, a term used to describe cases in which the visibility of an account’s social media posts is reduced without an official explanation or reason.

Ms Varga also complained that major social media sites “limit the visibility of Christian, conservative and right-wing views” and accused “the power groups behind the global tech giants” of having the power. to decide the elections. Mr Orban, who enjoys a parliamentary supermajority, faces legislative elections in 2022 which are expected to be the most fiercely contested since his return to power in 2010.

Poland has already proposed concrete measures to fight against perceived anti-right prejudices. Users who have had their posts deleted or their accounts blocked will be able to appeal to an organization called the Free Speech Council to have their content reinstated. If social media companies are found to have deleted posts or blocked accounts that are not illegal and refuse to reinstate them, they could face fines of up to 50 million zloty (11 million euros) .

Sebastian Kaleta, Polish deputy justice minister, said legislation was needed to ensure that social media groups did not delete posts simply because they did not agree with them.

“We see that anonymous social media moderators often censor opinions that don’t violate the law but are just critiques of the leftist agenda. This creates significant risks of violation of freedom of expression, ”he told the Financial Times.

“We are trying to protect our citizens from censorship on social media. [Social media groups] should only remove illegal content. Only a competent authority can decide what does or does not violate the law. “

Mr. Kaleta said that in his opinion the steps taken by Facebook and Twitter to block Mr. Trump’s accounts after his supporters stormed the Capitol in January were “a form of censorship.” But he said it had no impact on the Polish government’s plans and he had been working on the bill since early 2020.

Sebastian Kaleta, Polish Deputy Minister of Justice: “We are trying to protect our citizens from censorship on social networks” © Wojciech Olkusnik / EPA-EFE

The Polish government, like that of Hungary, has itself been accused of presiding over a sustained decline in media freedom. Critics say the main state broadcaster has been reduced to a government spokesperson, as scandal erupted last year alleged censorship from a song criticizing the leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, on a public radio station. In December, Orlen, a state-controlled refining group, redeemed 20 of the 24 regional newspapers in Poland.

However, Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish Prime Minister, said the proposed changes were necessary because social media groups had increasingly “introduced their own standards of political correctness and are fighting those who oppose them”.

“Censorship of free speech, once the domain of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, is now back, but in a new form, run by companies, which silences those who think differently,” he wrote. on Facebook last month. “The discussion is about exchanging points of view, not silencing people. We don’t have to agree with what our opponents write, but we can’t prohibit anyone from expressing opinions that are not against the law.

EU officials fear member states, including France and Germany, will adopt their own version of the digital rules that Brussels regulators seek to introduce for the bloc as a whole.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s executive vice-president for digital policy, urged online platforms to support the legislation proposed by Brussels or face an uneven patchwork of national laws.

She told the FT: “I think that’s really a very strong argument to say to the platforms: ‘Well, either you have this or you would have a completely fragmented European legal system.’ ‘

Last month, regulators released two bills aimed at clarifying Big Tech’s role in internet surveillance and curbing its growing power amid concerns that major online platforms such as Google and Facebook became “too big to care“.

Ms Varga said that while Hungary “continues to cooperate to prepare the EU regulation [on social media], recent events have shown that we need to act faster to protect people ”.

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