Europe’s top court has set a new line for the policing of illegal speech online. The ruling has implications for how speech is regulated on online platforms — and is likely to feed into wider planned reform of regional rules governing platforms’ liabilities.
Per the CJEU decision, platforms such as Facebook can be instructed to hunt for and remove illegal speech worldwide — including speech that’s “equivalent” to content already judged illegal.
Although any such takedowns remain within the framework of “relevant international law”.
So in practice it does not that mean a court order issued in one EU country will get universally applied in all jurisdictions as there’s no international agreement on what constitutes unlawful speech or even more narrowly defamatory speech.
Existing EU rules on the free flow of information on ecommerce platforms — aka the eCommerce Directive — which state that Member States cannot force a “general content monitoring obligation” on intermediaries, do not preclude courts from ordering platforms to remove or block illegal speech, the court has decided.
That decision worries free speech advocates who are concerned it could open the door to general monitoring obligations being placed on tech platforms in the region, with the risk of a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
Facebook has also expressed concern. Responding to the ruling in a statement, a spokesperson told us:
“This judgement raises critical questions around freedom of expression and the role that internet companies should play in monitoring, interpreting and removing speech that might be illegal in any particular country. At Facebook, we already have Community Standards which outline what people can and cannot share on our platform, and we have a process in place to restrict content if and when it violates local laws. This ruling goes much further. It undermines the long-standing principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country. It also opens the door to obligations being imposed on internet companies to proactively monitor content and then interpret if it is “equivalent” to content that has been found to be illegal. In order to get this right national courts will have to set out very clear definitions on what ”identical” and ”equivalent” means in practice. We hope the courts take a proportionate and measured approach, to avoid having a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
The legal questions were referred to the CJEU by a court in Austria, and stem from a defamation action brought by Austrian Green Party politician, Eva Glawischnig, who in 2016 filed suit against Facebook after the company refused to take down posts she claimed were defamatory against her.
In 2017 an Austrian court ruled Facebook should take the defamatory posts down and do so worldwide. However Glawischnig also wanted it to remove similar posts, not just identical reposts of the illegal speech, which she argued were equally defamatory.
The current situation where platforms require notice of illegal content before carrying out a takedown are problematic, from one perspective, given the scale and speed of content distribution on digital platforms — which can make it impossible to keep up with reporting re-postings.
Facebook’s platform also has closed groups where content can be shared out of sight of non-members, and where an individual could therefore have no ability to see unlawful content that’s targeted at them — making it essentially impossible for them to report it.
While the case concerns the scope of the application of defamation law on Facebook’s platform the ruling clearly has broader implications for regulating a range of “unlawful” content online.
Specifically the CJEU has ruled that an information society service “host provider” can be ordered to:
- … remove information which it stores, the content of which is identical to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, irrespective of who requested the storage of that information;
- … remove information which it stores, the content of which is equivalent to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, provided that the monitoring of and search for the information concerned by such an injunction are limited to information conveying a message the content of which remains essentially unchanged compared with the content which gave rise to the finding of illegality and containing the elements specified in the injunction, and provided that the differences in the wording of that equivalent content, compared with the wording characterising the information which was previously declared to be illegal, are not such as to require the host provider to carry out an independent assessment of that content;
- … remove information covered by the injunction or to block access to that information worldwide within the framework of the relevant international law
The court has sought to balance the requirement under EU law of no general monitoring obligation on platforms with the ability of national courts to regulate information flow online in specific instances of illegal speech.
In the judgement the CJEU also invokes the idea of Member States being able to “apply duties of care, which can reasonably be expected from them and which are specified by national law, in order to detect and prevent certain types of illegal activities” — saying the eCommerce Direction does not stand in the way of states imposing such a requirement.
Some European countries are showing appetite for tighter regulation of online platforms. In the UK, for instance, the government laid out proposals for regulating a board range of online harms earlier this year. While, two years ago, Germany introduced a law to regulate hate speech takedowns on online platforms.
Over the past several years the European Commission has also kept up pressure on platforms to speed up takedowns of illegal content — signing tech companies up to a voluntary code of practice, back in 2016, and continuing to warn it could introduce legislation if targets are not met.
Today’s ruling is thus being interpreted in some quarters as opening the door to a wider reform of EU platform liability law by the incoming Commission — which could allow for imposing more general monitoring or content-filtering obligations, aligned with Member States’ security or safety priorities.
“We can trace worrying content blocking tendencies in Europe,” says Sebastian Felix Schwemer, a researcher in algorithmic content regulation and intermediary liability at the University of Copenhagen. “The legislator has earlier this year introduced proactive content filtering by platforms in the Copyright DSM Directive (“uploadfilters”) and similarly suggested in a Proposal for a Regulation on Terrorist Content as well as in a non-binding Recommendation from March last year.”
Critics of a controversial copyright reform — which was agreed by European legislators earlier this year — have warned consistently that it will result in tech platforms pre-filtering user generated content uploads. Although the full impact remains to be seen, as Member States have two years from April 2019 to pass legislation meeting the Directive’s requirements.
In 2018 the Commission also introduced a proposal for a regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online — which explicitly included a requirement for platforms to use filters to identify and block re-uploads of illegal terrorist content. Though the filter element was challenged in the EU parliament.
“There is little case law on the question of general monitoring (prohibited according to Article 15 of the E-Commerce Directive), but the question is highly topical,” says Schwemer. “Both towards the trend towards proactive content filtering by platforms and the legislator’s push for these measures (Article 17 in the Copyright DSM Directive, Terrorist Content Proposal, the Commission’s non-binding Recommendation from last year).”
Schwemer agrees the CJEU ruling will have “a broad impact” on the behavior of online platforms — going beyond Facebook and the application of defamation law.
“The incoming Commission is likely to open up the E-Commerce Directive (there is a leaked concept note by DG Connect from before the summer),” he suggests. “Something that has previously been perceived as opening Pandora’s Box. The decision will also play into the coming lawmaking process.”
The ruling also naturally raises the question of what constitutes “equivalent” unlawful content? And who and how will they be the judge of that?
The CJEU goes into some detail on “specific elements” it says are needed for non-identical illegal speech to be judged equivalently unlawful, and also on the limits of the burden that should be placed on platforms so they are not under a general obligation to monitor content — ultimately implying that technology filters, not human assessments, should be used to identify equivalent speech.
From the judgement:
… it is important that the equivalent information referred to in paragraph 41 above contains specific elements which are properly identified in the injunction, such as the name of the person concerned by the infringement determined previously, the circumstances in which that infringement was determined and equivalent content to that which was declared to be illegal. Differences in the wording of that equivalent content, compared with the content which was declared to be illegal, must not, in any event, be such as to require the host provider concerned to carry out an independent assessment of that content.
In those circumstances, an obligation such as the one described in paragraphs 41 and 45 above, on the one hand — in so far as it also extends to information with equivalent content — appears to be sufficiently effective for ensuring that the person targeted by the defamatory statements is protected. On the other hand, that protection is not provided by means of an excessive obligation being imposed on the host provider, in so far as the monitoring of and search for information which it requires are limited to information containing the elements specified in the injunction, and its defamatory content of an equivalent nature does not require the host provider to carry out an independent assessment, since the latter has recourse to automated search tools and technologies.
“The Court’s thoughts on the filtering of ‘equivalent’ information are interesting,” Schwemer continues. “It boils down to that platforms can be ordered to track down illegal content, but only under specific circumstances.
“In its rather short judgement, the Court comes to the conclusion… that it is no general monitoring obligation on hosting providers to remove or block equivalent content. That is provided that the search of information is limited to essentially unchanged content and that the hosting provider does not have to carry out an independent assessment but can rely on automated technologies to detect that content.”
While he says the court’s intentions — to “limit defamation” — are “good” he points out that “relying on filtering technologies is far from unproblematic”.
Filters can indeed be an extremely blunt tool. Even basic text filters can be triggered by words that contain a prohibited spelling. While applying filters to block defamatory speech could lead to — for example — inadvertently blocking lawful reactions that quote the unlawful speech.
The ruling also means platforms and/or their technology tools are being compelled to define the limits of free expression under threat of liability. Which pushes them towards setting a more conservative line on what’s acceptable expression on their platforms — in order to shrink their legal risk.
Although definitions of what is unlawful speech and equivalently unlawful will ultimately rest with courts.
It’s worth pointing out that platforms are already defining speech limits — just driven by their own economic incentives.
For ad supported platforms, these incentives typically demand maximizing engagement and time spent on the platform — which tends to encourage users to spread provocative/outrageous content.
That can sum to clickbait and junk news. Equally it can mean the most hateful stuff under the sun.
Without a new online business model paradigm that radically shifts the economic incentives around content creation on platforms the tension between freedom of expression and illegal hate speech will remain. As will the general content monitoring obligation such platforms place on society.
TechCrunch an American online publisher focusing on the tech industry. The company specifically reports on the business related to tech, technology news, analysis of emerging trends in tech, and profiling of new tech businesses and products.
Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster
Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.
Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update
On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.
Our December 2021 product reviews update is now rolling out for English-language pages. It will take about three weeks to complete. We have also extended our advice for product review creators: https://t.co/N4rjJWoaqE
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) December 1, 2021
The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.
A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:
“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.
Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.
Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”
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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.
The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.
The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.
The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.
Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update
Product Review Update Targets More Languages?
The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.
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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.
This is his question:
“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.
So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.
…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”
John Mueller answered:
“I don’t know… like other languages?
My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.
But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.
But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.
I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.
But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.
And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.
So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.
But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”
Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?
While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.
Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.
One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.
It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.
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John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global
Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark
Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is
MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.
The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.
Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple
Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.
Amazon and Google are more trusted than Apple is with consumer’s personal data according to a survey
However, 39% said that they trust Amazon by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.
By adding up the scores in the positive categories,
Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.
Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.
Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.
74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive
The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.
The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?
Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”
The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”
Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.
When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”
Entireweb Articles – Read the latest Articles and News in Search Engine related world!
Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster
What’s A Brand Mention?
A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.
Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.
There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.
John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions
Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?
The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.
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The person asked the question:
“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”
Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions
Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.
“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.
And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”
That part about it being tricky is interesting.
He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.
Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness
Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.
“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.
And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”
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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic
Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.
The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”
Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.
John Mueller explained:
“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.
Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?
Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?
And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…
All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.
…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”
Where “Brand Mentions” Come From
The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.
There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.
However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.
There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.
There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.
The patent itself is about ranking web pages.
The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.
The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:
“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”
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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.
Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).
In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”
The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.
So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.
In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.
What Is A Reference Query?
A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.
The patent states:
“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”
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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:
“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.
…search queries including the term “example.com” can be classified as referring to that home page.”
The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.
“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”
The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.
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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.
The patent states:
“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”
It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.
Idea of Brand Mentions Is False
The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.
But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.
Plus John Mueller confirmed it.
“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.
Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark
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