Poland’s government has unveiled a draft law to combat censorship on social media, creating a Freedom of Speech Board with the power to order tech firms to restore online accounts and posts deleted for lawful speech on pain of substantial fines.
Zbigniew Ziobro, the Minister of Justice, and Sebastian Kaleta, the Deputy Minister of Justice and chief architect of the new law, unveiled the new protections in the wake of the mass banning of the still-sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, from most major social media platforms, along with some key staffers and campaign accounts.
This was followed by the removal of Parler, a free speech oriented microblogging platform similar to Twitter, the American leader’s primary online megaphone, from the Apple and Google Play app stores, followed by Amazon, which hosted its servers, wiping it off the internet entirely.
Similar treatment had been meted out to another Twitter alternative, Gab, earlier in President Trump’s term.
While most conservative and right-leaning pundits and politicians have expressed displeasure with online censorship, many have refused to support initiatives to combat it on the grounds that “the government getting involved” in the affairs of supposedly “private companies” would be worse — but the Polish government is adopting a different posture, arguing that the state has a duty to, as the country’s constitution puts it, ensure “The freedom to express opinions, to acquire and to disseminate information ” and prohibit “Preventive censorship of the means of social communication”.
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“The freedom of speech and freedom of debate is the essence of democracy; there is no democracy if the state does not guarantee freedom in these two areas,” argued Minister Ziobro.
“Polish citizens, while carrying out such discussions and debates on the internet… should have a guarantee of their basic rights that ensure the respect for their civil rights and freedoms that the Polish constitution guarantees to them,” he insisted.
“[I]n order to make [those rights] real, it was necessary for us to create some legal frameworks that will effectively enforce onto the global layers the respect of Polish law and the rights and liberties — with the emphasis on the word ‘liberties’ — of the Polish citizens, users of the internet,” he explained.
“There aren’t existing effective tools that would enable that. Today, social media decide themselves which content will be deleted and which accounts will be blocked, and even if a citizen can demonstrate within court proceedings that no laws have been broken, that still gives them no guarantee that social media will take such resolutions on board,” he lamented, handing over to Deputy Minister Kaleta to explain the new regulations.
Mr Kaleta, who told Breitbart London that Poland has been working on these problems since before the current controversy, having been disturbed by the removal of certain Christian pages from Facebook last year, explained that Poland’s key weapon against Big Tech censorship would be a new and independent Free Speech Board, comprised of five individuals appointed by a three-fifths majority of the country’s Sejm (Parliament) to six-year terms.
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The Free Speech Board, Kaleta explained, would be empowered to review appeals from social media users who have their accounts banned or content deleted, if prior appeals to the firms themselves are not resolved to the user’s satisfaction.
If the Free Speech Board finds that the appellant was censored for lawful speech, it will be able to order the tech firm to restore their accounts or content — and impose fines of up to 50 million złoty (roughly £9.8m or $13.3m) if they refuse to comply.
“Whether someone’s content violates the law should not be decided by a foreign, corporate entity,” Kaleta said, comparing the new Free Speech Board’s enforcement tools to powers arrogated to the Minister of Justice in Germany to financially penalise social media platforms — not for censoring free speech, but for failing to censor speech the German government regards as harmful quickly.
“In Germany, the authorities, namely the Minister of Justice, can act as a censor,” Minister Ziobro explained.
“[P]eople may be surprised that I don’t want a German solution here in Poland, giving me more power, but actually we don’t want to give more power to the Minister of Justice. I don’t want to do that, even though I am the Minister of Justice — I don’t want my competences to be broader in this respect,” he insisted.
“That is why there will be an independent body, elected by a three-fifths majority of the parliament,” he continued, stressing that “in Poland, we focus on freedom, and we will not provide the Freedom of Speech Board any tools or instruments to perform censorship, unlike what’s happening with the Minister of Justice in Germany — the only instrument that we give to this board is to prevent censorship by social networks, who sometimes act outside of the Polish law and interfere with the process of freedom of speech by blocking accounts, deleting content, blocking users they disagree with.”
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