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Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft Sign Hate Speech Agreement

FORTUNE — Some of the biggest U.S. tech firms have signed up to a code of conduct formulated by the European Commission, in which they agree to help fight against the spread of hate speech in Europe.

Online rights groups have reacted with outrage, saying they have no confidence in the agreement because they were left out of the discussions leading up to it (a point now being investigated by an EU watchdog) and they think the deal fails to protect free speech rights.

Facebook, YouTube,  Twitter  and Microsoft  MSFT promised to review most reports of illegal hate speech on their platforms within 24 hours and act on them by removing or disabling access to the content, as long as the complaints are precise and substantiated. Their terms of service and community guidelines will have to be clear that they prohibit hateful conduct and incitements to violence.

Google public policy director Lie Junius said in the statement that Google, which owns YouTube, has always prohibited illegal hate speech on its platforms and already has efficient systems in place for reviewing complaints. Facebook, too, said its “teams around the world review these reports around the clock and take swift action.”

European Digital Rights (EDRi) and Access Now, two of the EU’s most prominent lobbyists for online rights, reacted to the agreement by saying civil society groups had been “systematically excluded” from the negotiations leading up to it. As a result, they said they would not take part in future discussions taking place under the banner of the Commission’s “EU Internet Forum.”

Microsoft Canada Based on a 2008 piece of legislation, the code of conduct describes the illegal material as “all conduct publicly inciting to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.”

According to a statement, the companies recognize that illegal hate speech has a negative impact not only on individuals, but also on “those who speak out for freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination in our open societies and has a chilling effect on the democratic discourse on online platforms.”

 “Hateful conduct has no place on Twitter and we will continue to tackle this issue head on alongside our partners in industry and civil society,” said Twitter’s European public policy chief, Karen White. “We remain committed to letting the tweets flow. However, there is a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate.” Click here for more

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