Facebook gives user data to French courts over ‘hate speech’

In the first instance of a social media company formally collaborating with governments, Facebook has agreed to hand over to judges the identification data of French users who are suspected of so-called ‘hate speech’ on its platform.

According to Parliamentary Undersecretary for Digital Affairs Cedric O, the decision by the world’s biggest social media network comes after successive meetings between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and French President Emmanuel Macron, who want to take a leading role globally on the regulation of hate speech and the spread of false information online. Last week, Undersecretary O met with Facebook’s head of global affairs, former Deputy Prime Minister for the United Kingdom Nick Clegg. In a following interview, Undersecretary O said, “This is huge news, it means that the judicial process will be able to run normally. It’s really very important, they’re only doing it for France.”

Prior to this, Facebook had cooperated with French justice on matters related to terrorist attacks and violent acts by transferring the IP addresses and other identification data of suspected individuals to French judges who formally demanded it.

Undersecretary O, whose father is South Korean, was formerly an aide to socialist Minister Dominique Strauss-Khan. He is one of President Macron’s earliest followers and has been influential in shaping the President’s thinking on Big Tech as an advisor at the Elysee in the first two years of Mr. Macron’s presidency. Since his appointment in March, Undersecretary O has made the fight against hate speech online a key priority through regular contacts with Facebook’s top executives, including founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Last year, the discussions began on how to best regulate tech giants with a meeting between Mr. Zuckerberg and President Macron, which was followed by a report on tech regulation last month that Facebook’s founder considered could be a blueprint for wider EU regulation.

France’s parliament, where President Macron’s governing party has a comfortable majority, is currently debating legislation that would give a new regulator the power to fine tech companies up to 4 percent of their global revenue if they don’t do enough to remove hateful content from their network.

Undersecretary O also supports French startups being bought by larger American companies, saying, “My only goal is to spur the creation of a lot of companies. I have no problem with the fact that some of them are bought by U.S. companies, as long as they don’t have critical technology.” Undersecretary O is against the idea of breaking up Big Tech monopolies of companies such as Facebook or Google, whose size, weight on the Internet, and financial firepower have turned them into systemic players just as much as big banks.

Sonia Cisse, a counsel at law firm Linklaters, said, “It is a strong signal in terms of regulation. Hate speech is no longer considered part of freedom of speech, it’s now on the same level as terrorism.” With Facebook’s latest move, France is now a clear frontrunner in the quest to regulate big social media outlets, and other platforms might follow suite, Ms. Cisse said.