Angela Merkel criticises Twitter over Trump ban

US government should adopt laws that restrict online incitement, Chancellor says

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: German law on online hate speech  puts the country at the forefront of global efforts to police the internet. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/ EPA

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: German law on online hate speech puts the country at the forefront of global efforts to police the internet. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/ EPA

 

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has sharply criticised Twitter’s decision to ban US president Donald Trump, calling it a “problematic” breach of the “fundamental right to free speech”.

Twitter suspended Mr Trump’s account last week in the aftermath of the riots at the Capitol Building, citing “repeated and severe” violations of its civic integrity policies. Facebook has taken similar action.

But Dr Merkel said through her spokesman that the US government should follow Germany’s lead in adopting laws that restrict online incitement, rather than leaving it up to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to make up their own rules.

The intervention highlights a key area of disagreement between the US and Europe on how to regulate social media platforms. The EU wants to give regulators more powers to force internet platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to remove illegal content.

In the US, technology companies have traditionally been left to themselves to police their own sites, though momentum is gathering behind political moves to curtail their regulatory freedoms.

Several members of Congress are working on Bills which would limit the legal protections social media companies have from being sued for third-party content posted on their sites. Others are pushing for a new federal data privacy Bill that could mirror the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Dr Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said free speech was a “fundamental right of vital importance” that could be restricted, “but only in accordance with the laws and within a framework defined by the legislator – not by the decision of the management of social media platforms”.

He said for that reason the chancellor found it “problematic” that Mr Trump’s accounts had been indefinitely suspended.

Mr Seibert referred to a German law on online hate speech that came into force in 2018, putting the country at the forefront of global efforts to police the internet.

The Network Enforcement Act requires social media to remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of being notified or face fines of up to €50 million. It is considered one of the western world’s toughest restrictions on online content.

Dr Merkel’s criticism of the ban was echoed by France’s minister for finance, Bruno Le Maire. Mr Le Maire told France Inter on Monday he was “shocked” by Twitter’s move. He added: “Digital regulation should not be done by the digital oligarchy itself...Regulation of the digital arena is a matter for the sovereign people, governments and the judiciary.”

‘Act of censorship’

The ban has also come under attack from Alexei Navalny, the prominent Russian blogger and dissident. He called it “an unacceptable act of censorship” that would be used by the Kremlin to justify his own blacklisting by state media.

“The ban on Twitter is a decision of people we don’t know in accordance with a procedure we don’t know,” he said in a Twitter message, adding that the decision was “based on emotions and personal political preferences”.

“This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world,” he wrote. “In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter.’”

Mr Navalny is recuperating in Germany after he was poisoned by a nerve agent in an attack he says was orchestrated by the Russian secret services.

He said if Twitter wanted to block people, it could “create some sort of a committee that can make such decisions”.

He added: “We need to know the names of the members of this committee, understand how it works, how its members vote and how we can appeal against their decisions.”

Twitter’s move against Mr Trump was also condemned by Vladimir Soloviev, one of Russia’s leading state media propagandists. “So it is argued that the US constitution is lower than the internal documents of the Twitter company?” he wrote on his Telegram channel.

“Is it permissible for private companies to create zones free from the American constitution?” said Mr Soloviev, who hosts a weekly television show dedicated to what Russian president Vladimir Putin has done that week. “This is not just a story about Trump.”

Mr Seibert said that while objecting to outright bans, Dr Merkel had no objection to Twitter or Facebook warning users that some content – say, certain tweets by the US president alleging electoral fraud – was misleading.– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021