PARIS — Emmanuel Macron just “friended” Mark Zuckerberg.
The French president announced on Monday a six-month partnership with Facebook aimed at figuring out how the European country should police hate speech on the social network.
As part of the cooperation — the first time that Facebook has teamed up with national politicians to hammer out such a contentious issue — both sides plan to meet regularly between now and May, when the European election is due to be held. They will focus on how the French government and Facebook can work together to remove harmful content from across the digital platform, without specifying the outcome of their work or if it would result in binding regulation.
The partnership, which will involve meetings in Paris, Dublin and California, may be broadened out to cover other as yet unnamed areas after six months.
A French official who asked not to be named called the partnership an “unprecedented experiment” that would grant authorities insight into Facebook’s processes to formulate recommendations that are “concrete and operational.”
The social networking giant is now trying to lobby national lawmakers on the perceived dangers of regulating the internet.
“We are giving blind faith to our daily digital tools,” Macron told an audience in Paris. “Today, when I see our democracy, internet is much better used by the extremes … or by terrorist groups.”
The Facebook partnership, the French president added, “is, in my eyes, an important first step.”
The move marks the latest effort by Facebook to quell anger about how it handles a variety of digital issues ranging from misinformation and hate speech to its use of data and role in people’s everyday lives.
Like other Silicon Valley firms such as Twitter and Google, the social networking giant is now trying to lobby national lawmakers on the perceived dangers of regulating the internet. The partnership with France is the latest example of how the industry has shifted its strategy from promoting self-regulation to taking on a growing role in how countries create legislation.
“The best way to ensure that any regulation is smart and works for people is by governments, regulators and businesses working together to learn from each other,” said Nick Clegg, a former U.K. deputy prime minister who recently became head of Facebook’s public policy team, in a statement.
The initiative announced today stems from a meeting earlier this year between Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Macron, who has taken an active approach in both enticing tech firms to set up shop in France and clamping down on the industries’ excesses.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, as well as controversy about hate speech on the social network, Facebook is ramping up efforts to engage with policymakers worldwide. But with Facebook now playing such a central role in elections, the new six-month project will likely lead to criticism that Facebook plays too important a role in drafting rules that will affect its own business.
Part of the company’s response follows Germany’s own legislation to combat hate speech, which came into force in early 2018, and imposes fines of up to €50 million on social media companies if they do not remove hate speech from their networks within 24 hours.
Those rules have been criticized for giving tech companies too much power to decide what material would be taken down and for claims that they represent a threat to people’s online freedom of speech. Proponents have argued that binding rules were a necessary step after the failure of some social media companies to respond to spreading hate speech.
The upcoming six-month project between France and Facebook is likely to face similar challenges.
While the country upholds people’s right to freedom of expression, local lawmakers are already working on separate rules aimed at policing potential digital misinformation in the run up to future elections.