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 (FB), YouTube (GOOG), Twitter (TWTR) 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.
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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.”
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.”
“The ‘code of conduct’ downgrades the law to a second-class status, behind the ‘leading role’ of private companies that are being asked to arbitrarily implement their terms of service,” the groups said in a statement. “This process, established outside an accountable democratic framework, exploits unclear liability rules for companies. It also creates serious risks for freedom of expression as legal but controversial content may well be deleted as a result of this voluntary and unaccountable take down mechanism.”
“It will, in practical terms, overturn case law of the European Court of Human Rights on the defense of legal speech,” they added.
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Facebook in particular has faced severe criticism in Germany over its handling of far-right hate speech, a big issue in that country given its history. German prosecutors at one point launched an investigation into the firm’s top managers in the country, though that’s been dropped now. The company has agreed to work with the government on tackling the issue.
Anti-racism organizations in France, too, have gone after Facebook, Twitter and YouTube over the “hateful” content posted to their platforms.
According to the Commission’s Tuesday statement, the companies will need to provide information about their notice procedures, in order to help EU countries and their law enforcement agencies to understand how the systems work and make best use of them.
The firms will also need to “provide regular training to their staff on current societal developments and to exchange views on the potential for further improvement.”
This article was updated to include the reactions of EDRi and Access Now.