Governments are in a global race to scrutinise Silicon Valley, creating a broad regulatory wave aimed at curbing the power of a small group of American tech giants.
French government officials said Friday they plan to give regulators there sweeping power to audit and fine large social-media companies like Facebook Inc. if they don’t adequately remove hateful content. Competition authorities in India, meanwhile, have launched a probe into whether Alphabet Inc.’s Google uses its mobile operating system to block rivals.
The dual efforts are the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive probes and tough new regulations around the world circumscribing tech firms on a number of different fronts. The European Union has enacted broad restrictions on how companies handle data as concerns over privacy grow. Governments are negotiating where tech giants should pay their taxes and investigating whether some companies are abusing their size and market power to thwart competition.
Officials are also sharing information among themselves. An Indian official familiar with the new Google probe said government officials there consulted with European and U.S. officials before launching their investigation into its Android operating system. The EU, which has inspired countries’ tech probes in the past, fined Google €4.3 billion, or about $4.8 billion, alleging it abused the dominant position of Android.
A Google spokesman said it looked forward to working with Indian competition authorities to “demonstrate how Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”
While much of the toughest scrutiny has emanated from Europe, American officials have shown a new willingness to embrace regulation, too. The Federal Trade Commission is completing a settlement that could include a fine for Facebook of as much as $5 billion, alleging breaches of consumer privacy. The body’s commissioners testified Wednesday in front of a House subcommittee advocating a new data-privacy law.
Some prominent politicians, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat running for president, have called for breaking up some big tech companies. Those calls seemed far-fetched just a few years ago but have started to resonate more broadly amid the regulatory onslaught.
Chris Hughes, who helped Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg create the social-media giant, called earlier this week for the company to be broken up, writing in an opinion piece in the New York Times that it had amassed “unprecedented and un-American” power and evoking the forced break ups of Standard Oil and AT&T . Facebook says accountability is best enforced through new rules for the internet, not a breakup.
The French proposal attempts to draw a finer line on one of the thorniest topics raised by the wave of new laws aimed specifically at policing content: how to regulate social media’s excesses without trampling free speech.
The French proposals are modeled on how banks are required by regulators in many jurisdictions to take adequate measures to protect their customers against fraud. The legislation would give new authority to an independent regulator in France, with investigative powers to verify that firms are appropriately guarding against the publication of hate speech on their platforms, according to French officials. The measures don’t, however, oblige companies to detect every piece of hate speech, the officials said.
Because of free-speech concerns, France’s proposals would only require companies to maintain an effective system for removing illegal content but won’t make them liable for every single posting, like in some other countries, French officials said. A regulator could issue hefty fines—to as much as 4% of a company’s global revenue—in the event that companies were found to be lacking in their internal processes, the officials added.
“Even if their system of regulation is effective, it’s as if a bank said to regulators, ‘When it comes to banking oversight, don’t worry about it, I’m on top of it,’ ” said Cédric O, France’s junior minister for digital affairs, in an interview. “The state should be able to check they are on top of it.”
French officials unveiled the proposals Friday ahead of a meeting between President Emmanuel Macron and Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg, after several months of visits by French officials to Facebook offices for briefings.
Following the meeting, Mr. Zuckerberg said he was “encouraged and optimistic about the regulatory framework that will be put in place.” He added that he hopes the proposals “can become a model, not just a national model for France but can be worked into more of a framework across the EU overall.”
Facebook executives said the company supports the overall thrust of the regulation, in part because it avoids overly prescriptive rules, but said they had concerns and would seek limits on the scope of potential audits and level of potential fines.
“It’s going to be hard for us. There are going to be things in there that we disagree with. That’s natural,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
Big tech companies say they already work hard to remove illicit and harmful content and do so increasingly with the help of automated artificial-intelligence tools.
Tech lobbyists have opposed efforts to create too many obligations to remove content, in part because they say it would hurt smaller firms without the resources to police every posting. In March, the U.S.-based Information Technology Industry Council said in a policy paper about European tech proposals that requirements to monitor or filter all content could create “unrealistic or undesirable burdens.”
Tech executives and free-speech activists warn that requiring the internet be scrubbed of all illicit content could lead to a chilling effect on free expression.
“If we want the filters to be perfect, we’re just going to have to turn them up. And what that’s going to mean is that legitimate content is also going to get filtered,” said Andrew Sullivan, chief executive of the Internet Society, a nonprofit focused on internet technology and policy.
The French move accelerates efforts by governments from Berlin to Canberra to make tech companies more responsible for the inappropriate content their platforms sometimes distribute—whether it be electoral disinformation, terrorist propaganda or a pirated copy of a Hollywood film.
Calls for more regulation related to social-media content have intensified after a gunman earlier this year killed 51 at two mosques in New Zealand while broadcasting a live video on Facebook. Governments around the world are considering harsher requirements and big fines.
On Wednesday, Singapore approved a new law that requires social-media platforms to take down or issue corrections to articles or statements posted on their platforms that Singapore government ministers deem to be false.
Australia’s parliament last month passed a bill that requires social-media companies to expeditiously remove violent material posted to their platforms, with penalties for noncompliance including hefty fines and prison sentences. Shortly thereafter, the U.K. proposed creating a new regulator empowered to force companies to take action on a gamut of illicit content, from disinformation to cyberbullying.
Germany last year implemented a law that threatens big fines for companies that systematically fail to remove extremist content or hate speech.