German social media law sparks protest

Law compels social media to remove abusive material within 24 hours or face €50m fines

German minister for justice Heiko Maas: last two years have  seen a tripling of hate speech and other criminal content on social media platforms. Photograph: Steffi Loos/AFP/Getty Images

German minister for justice Heiko Maas: last two years have seen a tripling of hate speech and other criminal content on social media platforms. Photograph: Steffi Loos/AFP/Getty Images

 

Being called names, online and off, is part of the job description for Germany’s federal justice minister. But there was an added ferocity when Heiko Maas arrived in Dresden to explain his controversial new hate speech law.

The law, which passed the Bundestag upper house last Friday, compels social media companies to remove “evidently unlawful” abusive material within 24 hours or face fines of up to €50 million. Hate speech or fake news that isn’t strictly unlawful has seven days to be assessed under the new law, which applies from October for services with more than two million German users.

For about 500 people protesting in Dresden, the new law makes Maas a “Volksverräter”, a Nazi-era term meaning traitor to one’s people, heading a new “ministry of truth”.

Inside, as he began to talk, several audience members donned scarves reading “Stasi 2.0”, a nod to the defunct East German secret police.

Undeterred, Maas said the law reflected changing times; just 12 million Germans have newspaper subscriptions compared to 28 million people using Facebook.

Threats and insults

The last two years, he said, had seen a tripling of hate speech and other criminal content on social media platforms. “We’re talking about incitement to murder journalists and volunteers, to set fire to asylum-seeker homes . . . threats and insults, defamation . . . lying about Auschwitz,” he said.

“These are all crimes designed to intimidate those who think differently, by creating a rhetorical dominance and climate of angst.”

Years of negotiations with multinational companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter had yielded varied results, he said: while Google subsidiary YouTube deleted 90 per cent of content flagged as illegal, the delete rate at Facebook and Twitter lay at 39 and 1 per cent respectively.

After losing patience, Maas now bats off complaints by social media giants about the new regulations, saying it was not asking too much for a company like Facebook, with profits of €3.57 billion, to spend money on hiring monitoring personnel.

“I find it funny . . . how quickly Facebook is able to judge this law as breaching the constitution,” he said, “but isn’t able to decide that incitement to murder on a Facebook page is punishable by law.”

Protest against the new law in Dresden was drawn largely from far-right groups like Pegida, which have blossomed in recent years on social media. But concerns about the new law – and possible unintentional consequences for free speech – go far beyond Germany’s far-right scene.

Free speech

Many leading data protection lawyers and other vocal critics of US social media companies have expressed ambivalence about the law, passed three months ahead of Germany’s federal election this autumn.

David Kaye, special rapporteur to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern the new law transfers interpretation of free speech to private companies.

That concern is shared by the Brussels-based digital rights group EDRi, where executive director Joe McNamee predicted Maas’s law would see social media companies “shoot first and don’t ask questions later”.

Already German tech websites are buzzing with stories of pre-emptive action by social media companies. One such case involves a Twitter account that challenges Germany’s mainstream narrative that crimes committed by refugees and migrants are “individual cases”. The account owners dispute that and claim to have identified a “recurring pattern”, which they tried to prove by posting police reports about, as the website put it, “crimes committed by refugees, migrants, and presumed migrants”.

Flagged content

In May the account was blocked and Twitter has declined to comment on whether it was a pre-emptive strike against the new law.

Maas dismisses concerns that his good intentions to tackle hate speech are paving a road to free-speech hell, insisting social media companies are about enabling, not disabling, communication. Pre-emptive deletions of flagged content that isn’t problematic, he said, would undermine their business model and profits – something that is not in their interests.

Instead, he said, the point of the sanctions was to force international social media companies to adhere to German law.

“The sanctions . . . only kick in when so little criminal content is deleted from the site,” he insisted, “that one has to assume that this is a systemic failure in how a firm perceives its legal obligations.”