In 2019 the French Parliament adopted a new law on online hate speech, the ‘Avia law,’ which regulates the ‘take down’ of racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic and other hateful content. The law was put forward by Ms Laetitia Avia MP, a lawyer who grew up in the low-income Paris banlieue suburbs to Togolese parents, and regularly suffered racist abuse on Twitter.

According to Ms Avia: ‘We cannot tolerate on the Internet what we won’t tolerate in the street.’ At the moment, she notes, those who incite hatred and even violence online ‘have almost total impunity.’

Under the new law, hateful content reported by users must be removed within 24 hours by social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or You- Tube. This includes any hateful attack on someone’s ‘dignity’ on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. If the social media platforms and tech companies do not comply, they will face large fines of up to 4% of their global revenue. There will also be a new judicial body to focus on online hate speech. Finally, social media companies now have to add buttons on their platforms allowing users to flag hateful or offensive content.

The new law is part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s drive to make France a frontrunner in the regulation of big social media platforms. He announced the planned crackdown on online hate at a dinner for Jewish groups last year, amid a rise of anti Semitic acts in France. In late 2019, after a meeting with President Macron, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg agreed to hand over data on French users suspected of hate speech.

The French law is in part inspired by similar German legislation on online hate speech, which came into force in 2018. The German law was criticised by some freedom of expression advocates as being overly broad and placing too many restrictions on free speech.

A representative of the French Government, speaking at the meeting in The Hague, underlined the fact that the ‘Avia law’ was designed and developed in consultation with social media companies. This is important as it is ‘only through partnerships that we can solve this complex problem.’ He also explained that the new law is expected to help prevent violent extremism, as many young people become radicalised via the Internet – either because they read content that incites hatred or violence against others, or because they are themselves targeted by hate speech.