Facebook beware — Germany is finally getting serious on fighting hate speech, and that has wider consequences.
For some time, the European country flagged the possibility it could impose a heavy fine on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks for allowing fake news and hate messages to proliferate.
On Friday, German lawmakers passed the Network Enforcement Act, commonly nicknamed as the “Facebook law”, under which social media companies could face a fine of up to €50m (£43m; $57m) for failing to crack down on hate speech, criminal material and fake news.
The new law requires Facebook & co. to remove “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours after receiving notification or complaint. They also have to block other offensive content within seven days. The initial fine is up to €5m, which could rise to €50m.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas, a strong supporter of the bill, said: “Freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins.”
“Experience has shown that, without political pressure, the large platform operators will not fulfill their obligations, and this law is therefore imperative,” he added in his address to the Bundestag.
Facebook has recently announced new tools to fight the spread of fake news, including an option for users to flag fake news and third-party fact-checking with help from the Poynter International Fact Checking Network.
The company, which also added 3,000 people to the community operations team, said in a statement: “We believe the best solutions will be found when government, civil society and industry work together and that this law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem.
“We feel that the lack of scrutiny and consultation do not do justice to the importance of the subject. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure safety for the people on our platform.”
The hate speech legislation
Germany has one of the world’s toughest laws as far as hate speech is concerned.
The current legislation dates back to 1949, in an effort to curb any pro-Nazi excitement that would lead to a resurgence of fascism after World War II.
Specifically, one part of the German criminal code, per German outlet Deutsche Welle, says a person can be jailed for up to five years if that person:
“incites hatred against a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins, against segments of the population or individuals because of their belonging to one of the aforementioned groups or segments of the population or calls for violent or arbitrary measures against them.
Facebook, Twitter and Google agreed to remove such content from their networks within 24 hours, under the previous law. However, a 2017 report from the Justice Ministry found that companies were still falling short of committing completely to the law.
According to the report, Facebook deleted just 39 percent of illegal hate speech within 24 hours in January and February. Earlier in June, German police raided the homes of 36 people over alleged hateful posts on social media.
General elections and wider context
The approval of this legislation is also in the context of the 2017 general election which is approaching fast in Germany.
Maas underscored this in a post on Facebook, saying that any company that “achieves billions in the net has a social responsibility.”
“Parties should not manipulate political debates, they should refrain from social bots and fake news. The election campaign 2017 must not be a digital lie battle.”
But there is also a wider context to Europe’s apparent flexibility on the matter of internet censorship, most notably with its controversial “right to be forgotten” law that allows EU residents to request that stories about them containing information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive” to be removed from search results.
Google has fought the ruling since it was approved in 2014 by an EU court and is also fighting the fact that a decision reached by France’s highest court will apply globally, affecting all Google domains, not just search results in France.
In both instances, European countries are exerting a certain level of censorship, even if under the auspices of curbing “hate speech” or “irrelevant” information, which has caused a backlash among advocacy groups.
EDRi, a digital rights group, said in a blog post that the law could “seriously impair human rights online”, including freedom of expression and opinion.
The group joined forces with other civil society associations and lobby group in arguing that the legislation could be incompatible with German constitutional law.
“These companies are, quite rationally, driven by the motivation to avoid liability, using the cheapest options available, and to exploit the political legitimisation of their restrictive measures for profit,” Maryant Fernández Pérez, senior policy adviser at EDRi wrote.
“This can only lead to privatised, unpredictable online censorship.”
Marcus Gilmer contributed to this report.