‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ Many of us are probably familiar with this proverb. Dating back to the mid-1800s, it became a common retort for schoolyard bullies. A phrase intended to indicate strength and resistance when confronted with taunting and teasing. However, our digital world has shown us that this proverb is in fact far from the truth. Words are very damaging – often as much as, if not more than, actual physical violence. With their pivotal law concerning Internet safety and monitoring, the European Union member states and Parliament have acknowledged this new reality. The long-awaited Digital Services Act (DSA) is expected to help combat the rampant rise of online hate speech.
What is hate speech?
But what exactly constitutes hate speech? And how can you differentiate it from freedom of expression and opinion? In a survey conducted by the forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis, hate speech is defined as speech directed at specific individuals or groups of individuals that contain hateful statements, threats of violence, or incitement to violence. It can be based on an individual’s ethnic background, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, religious affiliation, age, disability, or illness.
Hate speech online is not a new phenomenon. Since the boom of social media, the number of conversations and interactions taking place in the digital world has been growing exponentially. Not only have people been able to find like-minded individuals who align with their beliefs, but they have also been able to join forces with these individuals. For good and bad. And since the start of the pandemic, the negative effects of digital connection have been exacerbated, with the amount of online hate speech increasing by 20 per cent in the UK and US. And the numbers are hardly more reassuring in Germany, where politicians have been fighting for years to rein in social media giants and hold them more accountable for what happens on their platforms. According to statistics, 50 per cent of young adults in Germany between 14 and 24 have experienced hate speech.
The prevalence of online hate speech has unfortunately normalised it for many of us. There is almost an expectation of backlash and hateful feedback when posting about certain topics on social media. It is this level of normalisation that has allowed online hate speech to spiral out of control. And the societal dangers – from online hate speech escalating into offline violence to psychological effects like anxiety and fear – are disconcerting.
Thankfully, we as a society are more willing than ever to take action when reading hate speech online. According to the forsa survey, people are more inclined nowadays to directly address the propagators of hateful comments online and also more likely to report hate speech to social media platforms. This is particularly the case for people under 25 years of age. Furthermore, a significant majority of those surveyed believe that prosecution of hate speech authors under criminal law is an effective measure for combating online hate.
The premise of the DSA
The premise is much the same: ‘what is illegal offline, should be illegal online. And should be treated as such. The law aims to accomplish this by creating a clear set of uniform rules that will apply to the entire European Union, thereby providing an unprecedented level of legal certainty to digital services and platform operators. At the same time, the DSA aims to strike a balance between the rights and obligations of users, public authorities, and online platforms, with the level of responsibility contingent on the size of the platform. Here are a few of the provisions it entails:
- Platform users will have the right to challenge any content moderation decisions made by platforms and request redress or compensation via an out-of-court dispute mechanism or the court system.
- Significantly larger platforms and online search engines will be required to take concrete actions to mitigate the abuse of their services. This will be verified by independent audits of their risk management processes.
- Platforms will have to implement mechanisms which would allow them to react swiftly and efficiently to any crises affecting public security or public health.
- Platforms will have to implement safeguards which specifically protect minors. This includes restricting the use of sensitive personal data for targeted advertising.
- Platforms will have to comply with transparency measures, including transparency with regard to the algorithms in place for recommending content or products.
- The European Commission will play a greater role when it comes to supervision and enforcement of all provisions for large online platforms.
Although the agreement has not yet been confirmed by the European Parliament and the EU member states, this step is deemed a mere formality.
Opinions split on the efficacy and fairness of the DSA
Proponents of the law believe it will help clamp down on extremism and disinformation on the Internet by holding platform operators and digital service providers more accountable for what is published on their platforms.
However, there has also been a significant amount of criticism. Some politicians have voiced their concerns about the focal point of the DSA, arguing that the law caters more to the needs of the tech industry and governments and is less concerned with our fundamental rights as Internet users. There are also concerns that provisions to protect users from disinformation will give regulators too much authority when it comes to policing language and determining the veracity of online content.
Regardless of the difference of opinions regarding the effectiveness of the DSA, one thing is absolutely certain: there is an urgent need to prevent the spread of hate online and protect users, especially the young and vulnerable, from the negative psychological effects that such intimidation and harassment can perpetuate. We at Nevis are dedicated to online security and our products are designed with the aim of protecting Internet and digital service users from harm and abuse. The DSA is a step in the direction of enhanced safety and security in the digital realm and it will likely set an important precedent for future global regulations.