EU response to free speech killings? More internet censorship

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In the wake of this week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which began with the killing of 12 people at the offices of satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, the interior ministers of 12 EU countries have called for a limited increase in internet censorship.

The interior ministers of France, Germany, Latvia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the U.K. said in a statement (PDF) that, while the internet must remain “in scrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms, a forum for free expression, in full respect of the law,” ISPs need to help “create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible.”

This sounds similar to recent agreements in the U.K. whereby ISPs use filters to stop citizens seeing “extremist” online content, though it’s hard to tell without more details. There seems to be no coordinated push for more internet surveillance just yet, although there is a drive for better intelligence sharing between EU countries.

It seems, to say the least, an awkward reaction to what was in part a free-speech-related attack — the left-wing Charlie Hebdo has itself frequently been accused of hate speech for its portrayal of Muslims and others. On that front, a German newspaper that reprinted blasphemous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed in the wake of the attack was firebombed in the early hours of Sunday morning, with no injuries. Others that did the same remain under police guard.

At the Paris meeting, the ministers also agreed on a more positive way to counter terrorist propaganda: more speech. They said they had resolved “to develop positive, targeted and easily accessible messages, able to counter this propaganda, aimed at a young audience that is particularly vulnerable to indoctrination.”

The ministers also agreed on various other measures to do with keeping an eye on people travelling, including urgently moving towards a new European Passenger Name Record framework. As legal advice released this week indicates, any such agreement will need to take account of last year’s striking-down of the Data Retention Directive, by embedding significant privacy safeguards.

The meeting came as ministers and heads of state from around the world marched in Paris in solidarity against the attacks and in favor of the free expression for which Charlie Hebdo was targeted. These included representatives of countries such as Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Russia, all of which are notable for cracking down on free expression at home — their presence drew condemnation from Reporters Without Borders, which said it was “appalled”.

“We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends,” Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard “Willem” Holtrop said of some who had expressed condolences and solidarity with the publication, such as Vladimir Putin, far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, Queen Elizabeth and Pope Francis. In the Saturday interview with a Dutch newspaper, he added: “I never come to the editorial meetings because I don’t like them. I guess that saved my life.”

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