US social media companies have scaled up operations in Germany, where a controversial new law has turned the country into a testbed for whether tech firms can be relied upon to tell the difference between free speech and hate speech.
Facebook and Twitter have fitted their German websites with additional features for flagging up controversial content, and spent months hiring and training moderators to cope with the Network Enforcement Act, which came into full effect on January 1st.
But a number of controversial deletions and suspensions in the law’s first few days have boosted critics who say the law will affect free speech, as companies try to avoid fines.
In the aftermath of the second world war, Germany passed some of the world’s toughest laws around hate speech, including prison sentences for Holocaust denial and inciting hatred against minorities. In recent years politicians have increasingly voiced concerns about a relative lack of accountability online.
Under the law, known in Germany as “NetzDG”, online platforms face fines of up to €50 million if they do not remove “obviously illegal” hate speech and other postings within 24 hours of receiving a notification. A seven-day period is granted for removal of “illegal” content.
Users of Facebook and Twitter now have additional ways to flag up offensive posts they want to report for contravening not just the platform's own community standards but the new law, which also applies to sites such as Youtube, Instagram and Snapchat.
Facebook says it started hiring new German-language moderators before the law was approved and now has 1,200 people reviewing flagged content from “deletion centres” in Berlin and Essen. They make up as much as a sixth of its global moderation team.
The Guardian reports meanwhile that Twitter has hired more German-language moderators with a background in law but still operates from its European headquarters in Dublin.
Figures on how the law has affected the number of deletions won’t be published until June. Last summer, Facebook carried out an average of 15,000 deletions in Germany each month.
A New Year’s Eve tweet by a far-right politician accusing Cologne police of appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men” appeared to be the first post to have fallen foul of the law. Politicians from across the rest of the spectrum have warned that populists are deliberately using the act to paint themselves as victims.
Alternative für Deutschland deputy leader Beatrix von Storch posted her message in response to Cologne police sending out a New Year’s greeting in Arabic that it had previously posted in German, English and French.
On New Year’s Day, von Storch claimed she had been temporarily suspended from Twitter and said a Facebook post with the same wording was deleted by the firm as a direct result of the NetzDG law, decrying “the end of the rule of law”.
However, The Guardian reports that the temporary suspension of Beatrix von Storch’s Twitter account took place because her tweet had breached Twitter’s own code of conduct, rather than the new law.
The deletion notification on Facebook, on the other hand, did not reference the site’s code of conduct but cited the “incitement of the people” paragraph of the German penal code.
A tweet in which the AfD's deputy leader in the Bundestag, Alice Weidel, expressed solidarity with von Storch was blocked within Germany, this time for violating the new law rather than the site's own rules.
The Twitter account of a German satirical magazine which had parodied von Storch’s tweet was also suspended. Titanic published its send-up late on Tuesday, in a tweet purporting to be from von Storch to the police, saying: “The last thing that I want is mollified barbarian, Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men.”
Some legal experts believe that while the tweets by the far-right politicians were incendiary, they may not fall foul of Germany’s traditionally strict hate-speech laws. Cologne’s state prosecutor is now investigating the issue after several complaints were filed against von Storch and Weidel.
The law, which has been developed by the Social Democrat-run justice ministry, has come under attack from both sides of the political spectrum. While the AfD complains of “Stasi methods” reminiscent of censorship in communist east Germany, critics on the left accuse the state of outsourcing work to private companies that should be carried out by judicial bodies.
Konstantin von Notz, a Green Party MP, said that while his party had spent years calling for more regulation of extreme content on the web, the NetzDG law in its current form was “rushed through parliament and has some major flaws in its architecture”.
“Too many competences that require legal expertise are delegated to tech companies,” said von Notz. “The AfD is already using the law to paint itself as a victim, and we should brace ourselves for a growing number of debatable social-media deletions or suspensions which will end up in court”.
Germany’s biggest newspaper has called for the NetzDG to be scrapped. “The law against online hate speech failed on its very first day. It should be abolished immediately,” said an op-ed in tabloid Bild, adding that the law was turning AfD politicians into “opinion martyrs”.
Justice minister Heiko Maas, seen as the key driver of the law, defended himself against criticism. "Incitement to murder, threats, insults and incitement of the masses or Auschwitz lies are not an expression of freedom of opinion but rather attacks on the freedom of opinion of others," he said.
– Guardian service