By Jacob Mchangama 

In the age of ubiquitous social media, the power to shape public discourse lies in the hands of a few digital giants. Yet, recent European regulations intended to curb “torrents of hate” online could be stifling free expression. As policymakers tout these measures as necessary for a safer internet, a critical question emerges—is legally permissible speech being removed from social media platforms?

The Growing Regulatory Web in Europe: The Digital Services Act and NetzDG

European digital regulations, particularly Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) and the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA), were conceived to tackle the proliferation of illegal content online. The NetzDG, enacted in 2017, required social media platforms to promptly remove illegal content such as defamation and hate speech or face substantial fines. That law is now being repealed and superseded by the DSA.

In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron warned about “torrents of hate coming over the Internet.” European Union Commissioner and digital enforcer Thierry Breton asserted in 2020 that “the Internet cannot remain a ‘Wild West.’” The DSA, which became fully applicable in February 2024, seeks to ensure a “safe, predictable, and trusted online environment.” In 2023, both Breton and Macron raised the possibility of using the DSA to shut down social media platforms during periods of civil unrest. Fortunately, civil society organizations swiftly rebuked this suggestion.

Just this month, EU President Ursula von Leyen warned that the “core tenets of our democracy” were under threat when she unveiled plans to establish a “European Democracy Shield” to counter disinformation and foreign interference online. This would, no doubt, expand the power of the DSA to regulate broader forms of speech on the Internet.

The transformation of the DSA into a tool for broader regulation of Internet speech, including threats of wholesale shutdowns, requires civil society to critically evaluate and examine the underlying rationale for these regulations and their impacts on online discourse.

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Jacob Mchangama is the Founder and Executive Director of The Future of Free Speech. He is also a research professor at Vanderbilt University and a Senior Fellow at The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).