Hungary follows Poland in taking up Massive Tech ‘censors’

Hungary and Poland plan to take action against social media companies to combat what they consider biased attitudes towards conservatives.

Judit Varga, Hungarian Justice Minister, announced last week after former US President Donald Trump was permanently banned from Facebook and Twitter that the tough government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban would not tolerate encroachments on freedom of expression. In early January, Poland’s conservative-nationalist government proposed laws that would allow social media companies to be fined for removing positions that do not violate Polish law.

The announcements came as the EU struggled to take a coordinated approach to monitoring social media content. While many Western European countries are trying to combat the spread of violent right-wing or extremist religious rhetoric, Eastern European countries say they intend to combat what Ms. Varga calls “deliberate, ideological” censorship on social media.

In a recent post on Facebook, Ms. Varga said she intends to propose a bill this spring to “regulate the domestic activities of large tech companies.”

“Today anyone can be disconnected from the online realm without a formal, transparent, fair trial and remedy,” she wrote. In a previous post, she claimed she was “shadow banned” from Facebook. This term describes cases where the visibility of an account’s social media posts is decreased for no explanation or official reason.

Ms. Varga also complained that mainstream social media sites “limit the visibility of Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions” and accused “power groups behind global tech giants” of having the power to make elections. Mr Orban, who has superior parliamentary power, faces parliamentary elections in 2022, which are expected to be the most competitive since his return to power in 2010.

Poland has already proposed concrete measures to combat perceived right-wing extremist bias. Users whose posts have been removed or whose accounts have been suspended can contact a body called the Free Speech Council to have their content restored. If social media companies are believed to have not removed illegal posts or blocked accounts and refuse to restore them, they face fines of up to 50 million zlotys (EUR 11 million).

Sebastian Kaleta, Poland’s deputy justice minister, said the legislation is necessary to ensure social media groups don’t remove posts just because they don’t agree.

“We see that anonymous social media moderators often censor opinions that are not against the law, but are only criticism of the left’s agenda. This carries important risks for the violation of freedom of expression, ”he told the Financial Times.

“We try to protect our citizens from censorship on social media. [Social media groups] should only delete content that is illegal. Only a competent authority can decide what is against the law or not. “

Mr Kaleta said he believed Facebook and Twitter’s moves to freeze Mr Trump’s accounts after his supporters stormed the Capitol in January were “a form of censorship”. However, he said that this had no impact on the Polish government’s plans and that it had been working on the proposed bill since early 2020.

Sebastian Kaleta, Deputy Minister of Justice of Poland: “We are trying to protect our citizens from censorship on social media” © Wojciech Olkusnik / EPA-EFE

The Polish government, like the Hungarian one, has been accused of directing a sustained decline in media freedom. Critics say the main state broadcaster was reduced to a mouthpiece for the government, while a scandal broke out last year over the alleged censorship of a song criticizing the ruling Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski on a public radio station. In December, Orlen, a state-controlled refinery group, bought 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers.

However, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the proposed changes were necessary because social media groups have increasingly “introduced their own standards of political correctness and fought those who oppose them”.

“Free speech censorship, once the domain of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, is now back, but in a new form run by companies that silence those who think differently,” he wrote on Facebook last month. “The discussion is about exchanging views, not about silencing people. We don’t have to agree with what our opponents write, but we cannot forbid anyone to express views that are not against the law. “

EU officials fear that member states, including France and Germany, are enacting their own version of the digital rules that Brussels regulators want to introduce across the bloc.

Margrethe Vestager, EU Vice-President responsible for digital policy, has called on online platforms to stand behind the legislation proposed by Brussels, otherwise they run the risk of having to grapple with an uneven patchwork of national laws.

She told the FT, “I think that is really a very strong argument for telling the platforms, ‘Well, either you have this or you have a fully fragmented European legal system.'”

Last month regulators released two bills to clarify Big Tech’s role in overseeing the Internet and curb its growing power as major online platforms like Google and Facebook “have become too big to care”.

Ms. Varga said that Hungary “continues to work together to prepare the EU regulation [on social media]Recent events have shown that we need to move faster to protect people. “

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