Since the beginning of the internet, governments all over the world have tried to filter the content that is shown. Traditionally, Communist countries have required censoring of content on a large scale, something Google and Yahoo refused, ending their relationships with China. Other, more religiously controlled countries, have also made content filtering, or in some cases full domain filtering, a priority. Now, a few new countries have decided to join the ranks of China, Russia, North Korea and Syria in their disdain for public discord on the internet: Germany and Canada.
The German government passed a law requiring social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, to actively remove "unlawful content" (read hate speech) within 24 hours of posting. Failing to act within the given timeline can cost the company up to $5.7 million US. Many countries, including the Unites States, require that companies respond to reports of unlawful or harmful content within a reasonable timeframe, but Germany has taken it farther. They have redefined unlawful and have required active participation in the process, as opposed to passive response.
Interestingly, Heiko Maas, minister of justice and consumer protection, tried to put this internet censorship in terms of free speech, saying,
In an open society, in a democracy, disputes and debate are indispensable. Freedom of expression also includes sharp and ugly expression... But freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins.
Of course, free speech requires that there be no legal bounds created around speech. There can be no words spoken or written that can cross into the bounds of criminality that are not threats of violence, if you want to have a democracy or free speech. A Facebook spokesperson responded to the law, saying,
We believe the best solutions will be found when government, civil society and industry work together and that this law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem. We feel that the lack of scrutiny and consultation do not do justice to the importance of the subject. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure safety for the people on our platform.
It is unclear right now how these takedowns would work, and whether they must reside within Germany, or what posts must be removed.
Canada, seemingly taking its ideas from internet memes, decided to one-up Germany in its censorship of the internet. Rather than leaving the full details of a new law in question, Canada's Supreme Court ruled that they can control the internet as a whole. The court ruled that Google must remove a collection of search results from their system in its entirety, as opposed to only within Canada. The links in question are links that contain pirated content. The Canadian government wants any reference to this content to be hidden globally.
The problem with this ruling, of course, is that Canada cannot make laws that apply outside of their borders, though that is exactly what they are trying to do. Google is a US company, operating in countries across the world, but Canada believes that they have the ability to censor Google's content for the globe. This is even above what China asked Google to do that caused the company to ultimately leave the country entirely.
If Canada is allowed to censor the internet on a global scale, it could create a precedent that the country, or others, could use to censor any content on the web. If North Korea gets tired of Kim Jong Il memes, they could require Facebook to remove them. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, who tries to prevent overreach, either by corporations or governments, said in a blog post,
The Equustek decision is part of a troubling trend around the world of courts and other governmental bodies ordering that content be removed from the entirety of the Internet, not just in that country's locale... This framing results in Google being ordered to remove speech under Canadian law even if no court in the United States could issue a similar order.
This will not be the end of either of these stories. Social media companies are likely to fight Germany over the details of this new law. At the very least, more details on implementation and rules will be necessary for both the companies and the users of those services. Google will likely find a way to fight Canada's ruling over their right to control their own content, without interference from overreaching governments. The EFF will likely get involved, and Google may be forced to exit the country, or at least make the threat, in an attempt to undo this incredibly harmful ruling.