Social media and other websites will only have one hour to remove the content complained of under a new law passed by the French Parliament.
The one-hour delay applies to content that the French authorities consider to be linked to terrorism or sexual abuse of children.
Failure to act could result in fines of up to 4% of global turnover – billions of euros for the biggest online businesses.
But critics say the new law may restrict freedom of expression.
The new rules apply to all websites, big and small. But some fear that only internet giants like Facebook and Google have the resources to delete content as quickly as necessary.
Digital rights group La Quadrature du Net said it was impractical to remove content that the police considered “terrorism” in just an hour.
“With the exception of large companies, no one can afford to have a watch 24/7 to delete content on demand,” said a spokesperson for the group. “Therefore, they will have to rely on censorship before receiving a request from the police. “
This could take the form of an automatic system provided by larger companies, giving them “more power over what may and may not exist on the web.”
But there are also concerns that such technology could be used against groups such as protesters.
“Since 2015, we already had such a law that allowed the police to request the deletion of certain content if they deemed them terrorist … this has been used repeatedly in France to censor political content,” said the spokesman .
“Giving the police such power, without any control … is obviously a violation of freedom of expression for us. “
Incitement to hatred
The new French law reflects a proposal at the European Union level, where lawmakers suggested last year an hour delay for the removal of content.
But the proposal has proven controversial and is currently in limbo.
France has pursued its own version of the law despite concerns in Europe.
Under the new French law, content deemed illegal – but not linked to terrorism or sexual abuse of children – must be removed within 24 hours of notification.
This includes messages inciting hatred, violence, racism and sexual harassment.
Failure to remove the content could result in a fine of up to € 1.25 million (£ 1.1 million).
The French regulator, the Superior Audiovisual Council (CSA), will have the power to impose heavier fines of up to 4% of world turnover for continuous and repeated infringements.
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Laetitia Avia, MP for President Macron’s LREM party who proposed the bill, said the law would protect victims while reaffirming the country’s commitment to freedom of expression.
However, the French Republican Party voted against this measure.
MP Constance Le Grip told the National Assembly that fighting online hatred cannot be done at the expense of freedom of expression.
His colleague in the Senate, Bruno Retailleau, tweeted that the new law was “incompatible with the respect of public freedoms”.
Facebook said it was working closely with French regulator CSA and others “on the implementation of this law”.
YouTube said it is already tackling illegal content and welcomed any new partnership with governments.
Audrey Herblin-Stoop, head of public affairs for Twitter in France, told Reuters that the company would continue to work with the government to combat illegal content and hate speech.