Germany to fine tech giants if they don’t remove hate speech

30 Jun 2017

Image: rvlsoft/Shutterstock

German lawmakers are cracking down on the ‘law of the jungle’ online, with fines proposed for social media companies that fail to remove hate speech.

The internet is a game of opinions. That is, until those opinions cross the line.

One of the major issues concerning lawmakers across the globe at the moment, though, is where that line is and, when found, how to punish those who willingly step beyond it.

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Germany, one of the more determined countries in this regard, has just made a move to crack down on hate speech online.


New law

The German parliament today (30 June) agreed on a new law that could see social media companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter fined significant sums if they fail to remove offending content.

The law gives these networks 24 hours to delete or block “obviously criminal content”, according to Reuters.

It allows companies seven days to decide on content that has been flagged as offensive, but which may not be defamatory or inciting violence. Given the grey areas surrounding language and intent, the latter could prove a complicated element of the new rules.

There will be also be an obligation on the organisations to report back to the person who filed the complaint about how they handled the case.

Potential fines are substantial and companies that don’t play ball face punishments, beginning at €5m. This could rise to as much as 10 times that figure. The offending company’s chief executive, too, could be on the hook for up to €5m, according to The New York Times.

“With this law, we put an end to the verbal law of the jungle on the internet and protect the freedom of expression for all,” said Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister.

“We are ensuring that everyone can express their opinion freely, without being insulted or threatened. That is not a limitation, but a prerequisite for freedom of expression,” he said.

Facebook woes

The whole world of offensive language online is a messy one, with companies and states struggling to find ways to both protect people’s freedom of speech and expression, and limit offensive behaviour.

For example, it has emerged that Facebook algorithms – trained to find and censor content of hate speech online – have been thrown into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, after news website ProPublica obtained leaked slides that detail what is and isn’t deleted by its system.

The most confusing aspect of the slides is that, in any given situation, an attack against a group of white men is considered a protected category against hate speech, but not black children.

In Germany, Facebook has around 29m users, more than one-third of the country’s total population. It said that thousands of posts are deleted each week and that this new law was not a help.

“This law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem,” a spokesperson said, adding that Facebook did not think it had been consulted enough.

Facebook isn’t the only critic of the German move, with the draft legislation subsequently softened up to see email and messenger providers excluded.

“[German lawmakers] also made clear that a fine would not necessarily be imposed after just one infraction, but only after a company systematically refused to act or does not set up a proper complaint management system,” said Reuters.

Social media. Image: rvlsoft/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic