France rediscovers free speech as the United States abandons it

In France, the Constitutional Council (something like our Supreme Court) has struck down a new set of regulations put forward by the government of President Emmanuel Macron that would have imposed heavy fines on technology companies if they were insufficiently energetic in taking down certain “hateful” content. Under the Macron rules, companies such as Facebook would have been legally responsible for doing that policing on their own initiative (as opposed to being directed to remove illegal content by a judge), and would have been given as little as one hour to act in some cases. It was an absurd proposal, though not quite as absurd as the German approach upon which it was based and which is standing law in that country…

This small victory for free speech in France does not put Europe on the road to a First Amendment. And that should be of interest to Americans, not only as a point of comparison but also for practical reasons: Companies such as Facebook endeavor to comply with the law in the countries where they operate, and corporations by nature prefer the bureaucratic qualities of conformity, homogeneity, and standardization. For much the same reason that most U.S. automobile companies have long built cars that satisfy California’s stricter air-pollution standards even when those cars are destined for Louisiana or North Dakota, firms such as Facebook have incentives to develop procedures that satisfy their most demanding regulators worldwide rather than their more permissive ones, and so it is likely that Americans relying on global technology companies will feel some influence from Berlin, Brussels — and Beijing.

Of course, social media is a sewer, and excepting the shareholders the world would not be much worse off if Facebook and Twitter disappeared tomorrow. But for many millions of people, these sewers are the primary means of political communication.