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Internationally, two documents provide freedom of expression protection. The first is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the second is Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The importance of free speech and free expression are recognized as fundamental human rights with caution of unjustly infringing on them.

By obliging social media platforms to delete illegal content within 24 hours or otherwise face exorbitant fines, the NetzDG triggered fierce debates and concerns regarding its ramification on freedom of expression by:

  • The Streisand effect (detrimental outcomes of censorship)
  • Accidental removal of legal content
  • Privatized law enforcement
  • Unnecessary sanctions
  • Global Internet censorship through authoritarian regimes

At least 13 different countries have enacted or outlined laws that are similar to the NetzDG matrix. According to the Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net, five of them (Honduras, Venezuela, Vietnam, Russia, and Belarus) are ranked as “not free”, five others are ranked as “partly free” (Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Kenya, and India) and the remaining three are categorized as “free” (France, UK, and Australia). (Source: freedomhouse.org). More recently, Turkey was also added to the list, having passed the worst version of the NetzDG, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (Source: eff.org)

United States
According to a study that was conducted last year, 85% of daily active Facebook users live outside of the U.S. and Canada, 80% of YouTube users and 79% of Twitter accounts are mainly from up-coming markets such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia. (Source: www.omnicoreagency.com)

While most of these big tech companies have their headquarters in the United States, the majority of their users are based outside the country. As a result, these companies are essentially governed by U.S. law. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Section 230 are the two principal legal frameworks that regulate the online freedom of expression.

In the U.S., the government is prevented from infringing on the right to free speech by the First Amendment. However, tech companies are not similarly subordinate to the First Amendment. Consequently, they can enact their codes of conduct and policies that often further restrict speech that would not be prohibited by the government under the First Amendment. For instance, Tumblr and Facebook prohibit the publication of graphic nudity on their platforms.

Yet under the First Amendment law, such prohibition by the government would be unconstitutional. And because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects social media networks, website operators, and other intermediaries, they are not held liable for the generated content in their platforms and have been able to thrive.

United Kingdom
To combat detrimental content, the U.K. released a White Paper last year highlighting multiple requirements. Internet companies must keep their platforms safe and can be held accountable for the content published on their platforms and, they are liable to pay consequent fines. (Source: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk)

This article is the second part of a series. If you missed the first part, read it here.

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