Germany wants to fine Facebook over hate speech, raising fears of censorship

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Facebook, Twitter, and other web companies are facing increased pressure to remove hate speech, fake news, and other content in Europe, where lawmakers are considering new measures that critics say could infringe on freedom of speech.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron said last week they are considering imposing fines on social media companies that “fail to take action” against terrorist propaganda and other violent content. The European Union, meanwhile, recently moved closer to passing regulations that would require social media companies to block any videos containing hate speech or incitements to terrorism.

But nowhere is the pressure more acute than in Germany, where lawmakers are racing to pass new legislation that would impose fines of up to €50 million ($55.8 million) on tech companies that fail to remove hate speech, incitements to violence, and other “obviously illegal” content from their platforms. Companies would have to remove clearly illegal content within 24 hours; they would have up to one week to decide on cases that are less clear.

The Social Networks Enforcement Law, first announced in March by Justice Minister Heiko Maas, aims to hold social media companies more accountable for the content published on their sites, and to ensure they are in accordance with Germany’s strict laws on hate speech and defamation. But the bill has drawn vehement criticism from rights groups, lawyers, and a diverse mix of politicians, who say such steep financial penalties could incentivize tech companies to censor legal speech out of caution. Critics also claim that the proposed legislation — known as the “Facebook Law” — would give social media companies undue power to determine what people can say online, effectively outsourcing decisions that should be taken by the justice system.

Joe McNamee, executive director of the Brussels-based digital rights group EDRi, says the German law would compel social media companies “to shoot first and don’t ask questions later in relation to anything that’s reported to them.” He also believes it would move Europe closer to “a wholesale privatization of freedom of expression,” with “large internet companies deciding what they want the public the discourse to be, and how much restriction… to impose to have legal certainty.”

Maas defended the bill during parliamentary debate last month, describing it as a necessary measure to curb the spread of illegal speech. "The point of the proposed legislation is that statements that violate the law must be deleted," Maas said, according to Deutsche Welle. "These are not examples of freedom of speech. They're attacks on freedom of speech. The worst danger to freedom of speech is a situation where threats go unpunished.”

Maas has been a particularly outspoken critic of Facebook, claiming that the social network should be treated as a media company, which would make it legally liable for hate speech, defamation, and other content published to its platform. The justice minister also criticized Facebook for failing to remove flagged hate speech in 2015, amid rising anti-migrant protests violence across Germany; prosecutors in Hamburg opened an investigation into Facebook’s European head later that year for “ignoring racist posts.”

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has been an outspoken critic of Facebook.
Photo by Adam Berry / Getty Images

Facebook, Twitter, and Google agreed to remove hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours, under an agreement with the German government announced in December 2015. But a 2017 report commissioned by the Justice Ministry found that the companies were still failing to meet their obligations. Twitter removed just 1 percent of hate speech flagged by its users, the report said, while Facebook took down 39 percent. The companies struck a similar agreement with the EU in May 2016, and although Facebook has made progress in reviewing and removing illegal material, the European Commission said in a report last month that Twitter and YouTube are still failing to adhere to the voluntary accord.

Facebook and Google have also taken steps to combat fake news in Europe, amid concerns that misleading content could influence elections. Facebook began labeling fake news in Germany and France earlier this year, and it partnered with Correctiv, a Berlin-based nonprofit, to help fact-check dubious news stories.

Facebook pushed back against Germany’s proposed law last month, saying in a statement that it “provides an incentive to delete content that is not clearly illegal when social networks face such a disproportionate threat of fines.”

“It would have the effect of transferring responsibility for complex legal decisions from public authorities to private companies,” the statement continues. “And several legal experts have assessed the draft law as being against the German constitution and non-compliant with EU law.”

When reached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson referred to a previous statement from Karen White, head of public policy in Europe, following the release of the European Commission’s report. “Over the past six months, we've introduced a host of new tools and features to improve Twitter for everyone,” the statement reads, in part. “We’ve also improved the in-app reporting process for our users and we continue to review and iterate on our policies and their enforcement. Our work will never be ‘done.’”

Chan-jo Jun, an activist German lawyer who has filed several high-profile lawsuits against Facebook, says he’s “ambivalent” about the draft law because it lacks what he sees as a crucial component. In a phone interview, Jun said the law should allow for users to appeal Facebook’s decision to remove flagged content, and to force the company to “hear the voice of the person whose post has been deleted.” Free speech may be jeopardized without such a mechanism, he said, though he believes there is still a need for government oversight of social media.

“If we think criminals should be prosecuted on the internet, then we have to make sure that German law applies on the internet, as well,” Jun said, “and that it is not only being ruled by community standards from Facebook.”

Maas is looking to pass the bill before the Bundestag’s legislative period closes at the end of June — the last chance to do so before national elections in September — though it faces opposition from a broad range of politicians. Lawmakers from the far-left and far-right have strongly criticized the bill, as have organizations such as Reporters Without Borders. McNamee says that even if the law does pass, it likely will not hold up to legal challenges in Germany or Europe. In a non-binding ruling handed down last week, a German parliamentary body determined that the bill is illegal because it infringes on free speech and does not clearly define illegal content.

Maas has expressed support for Europe-wide laws on hate speech and fake news, though EU regulators have traditionally favored a more self-regulatory approach to policing online content. Yet new EU data protection rules slated to go into effect next May point to a more aggressive stance. Under the regulations, technology companies found to violate consumer privacy could face fines of up to 4 percent of their global turnover. (Facebook earned nearly $28 billion in global revenue in 2016.)

“Up until now, one could argue that large tech companies have been able to, by and large, get away with saying, ‘oh, it’s all technology and it’s all very difficult,’” says Joss Wright, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. Lately, however, European regulators have shown an increased “willingness to take on tech companies directly,” Wright adds.

In Germany, however, some activists worry that lawmakers who support the bill may be looking to score political points ahead of this year’s elections, while ignoring deeper societal issues that have allowed hate speech to propagate.

“We fear that after this law comes to action, the whole debate is over for the politicians, and we are just right at the beginning,” says Johannes Baldauf of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a Berlin-based NGO that tracks and combats hate speech and extremism. Baldauf, who leads a project tracking hate speech online, says “there has to be some sort of legislation” to curb illegal speech, though he believes it should be coupled with public awareness campaigns and public debates about what drives racism and xenophobia.

“You can’t just change the mind of the people by proposing a law,” Baldauf says. “And you can’t just delete what these people are thinking.”

Comments

critis saying "too far"?

these companies are making money off of content on their platforms, and some (most) of that content is hurting people. that shouldn’t be responsible?

I don’t expect them to read every post before sharing; that would kill the whole "instant" aspect of the internet and on the whole it is impossible to screen everything. BUT when I flag something, I don’t want to get a "we dealt with it" approach when the post is still up, the account uneffected.

this is especially true for other langues than English; I speak Turkish and French and I can clearly say that flagging doesn’t work when the posts are in any other language but English. but hate speach/racism/fake news happens all around the world. these companies earn eagerly internationally but neglect the responsibility associated with each of those countries.

just imagine if the global language around the world was Japanese, and facebook wouldn’t care less about USA posts because well it’s in English. this is what the rest of the world is dealing with today.

in Turkey, social media is used to spread hatred and fake news every day. I constantly flag, and I am shocked to see no action being taken. it seems like they only take down posts or accounts when there is too much flagging. so it’s ok to hurt if not a lot of people complain?

I stand with EU on this topic. the internet giants need to be a lot more responsible with their content and it doesn’t matter if the content is created by different people, it is still through your site people get access to these topics

so the solution shouldn’t be censoring posts, the solution should be local action and detailed analysis of each flagging.

I get that this is a private platform, Facebook has the right to do whatever they want. But something that concerns me is what classifies as "hate speech". People can call hate speech on very different things.

fake news and terrorist posts are non negotiable, but yes hate speach is subjective. and these platforms need to decide their company stand points and start acting.

I’d think if Facebook is allowing people to change their profile pictures to LGBT flag, than they should also protect those individuals? Maybe they do in USA, but what about the rest of the world?

I’m not expecting the whole internet to start expressing their ideas in a civilized manner all of a sudden, but there is a clear line between being against a certain type of people/idea and hate speach where the intent is clearly different. It’s the moderator’s job to draw the line. if you don’t like the moderator, you leave the platform or criticize the the moderation. but now there is no moderation whatsoever.

my interpretation is, because such posts generate views and clicks, they don’t want to alienate such behavior, and the more important reason would be, when they start moderating they’ll acknowledge that posts on their platforms are part of their responsibility. so they just sit and watch

There is no "hate speech" clause in the first amendment. There’s just free speech. In fact the SC just ruled 8-0 on a case in favor of a band that called themselves "The Slants."

Harassment and threats or anything supporting terrorists should be removed though.

there is no hate speach law in USA, so the internet giants shouldn’t care about it? but they operate and earn money internationally, not just the USA

how different is hate speech from harassment?

what about fake news? what about fake news sites and accounts?

Yes, but these companies have to have a global reach and Germany has its own laws.

And they created these systems where anyone can post anything without the Facebooks’ review. They created hooks to make money off of those postings and left it to their users, who’s information facebook sells, to moderate.

They want to make billions and build systems that require them to not think about what goes on their site. They want to be everything, news, entertainment, and social interaction, but want NONE of the responsibilities that other companies have had to have it the past.

Germany is far more strict on hate speech than the US. Holocaust Denial here gets you looked at like a moron, you could have negative financial and social consequences but that is the extent of it.

In Germany, they will track you down and put you in jail. And now, facebook will allow German standards to become its own within the nation. Sounds awful to me.

I think it’s fine if facebook decides to remove content it deems hateful, or remove advertising from that. But in Germany, what the government deems "hateful" is just a much lower barrier than what would be acceptable here, and so once again, the weakest and most brittle link in the hate speech chain, becomes the standard by which companies are to be bound by.

If some German voices on facebook that they are hostile to allowing in more immigration from the middle east due to some social/crime related changes, I could easily see that person track down and jailed for hate speech in germany, or at the very least have those views wiped from facebook. Not because it’s their own standards, but the standards of Germany.

Is this what we want of the internet? Where does it stop? Based off some of the responses in these own comments, wherever they demand it stop. Emperor/divine kings of what is and is not hate speech. Bow to their standards, the only standards worth adhering too.

by the same logic, I can write racist remarks on any site and there’ll be no consequences? free speach doesn’t mean you can say anything you want; it means you can say anything you want till you start hurting others through your words. for example you shouldn’t come and tell me I’m stupid, that’s not freedom of speech that’s bullying. you shouldn’t mock someone because of their skin color, gender, religion.

this is what I always have a conflict with USA citizens; freedom of speech is green light to irresponsive thoughts and ideas. I’m sorry but I can’t accept this level of so called "freedom". you don’t have any right to mock with me, bully me, cause me psychologic stress. at least, this is ideal way of conduct. so any type of hatred speech for me has some level of harassment. it’s 2017 and I can’t seem to understand how we’re still not clear on why racist/sexist/hatred infused sayings are a part of freedom of speech or not. maybe this is because of cultural differences but there is a big difference in saying "I belive homosexuality is a disease" and "homosexuality is a disease". I can’t believe one can simply say both sentences are freedom of speech when the second one is a direct attack.

maybe I need to chill and stop using the internet but I am fed up with indifference

I think you are too far into the words cut me like a blade camp. Your standards are too weak. That last was a personal judgment of your own stance. Was that too much to put out there too? Then let’s cut the pretense and just ban all comments until they are approved by you.

"by the same logic, I can write racist remarks on any site and there’ll be no consequences?"

Why not, I see it everywhere on the internet every day. Sometimes I write something sarcastic back. Sometimes I ignore it and move on. So far, either way, the sky has not fallen.

"you don’t have any right to mock with me, bully me, cause me psychologic stress."

You might consider whether this internet thing is right for you. Maybe you’ve managed to avoid the really nasty areas, but I haven’t yet run across anyplace interesting where people don’t get out of line every now and then. I just visited a favorite site (not a particularly nasty one) and people were cracking jokes about the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s the internet, what are you gonna do?

Hatespeech is not about shitposting. Hatespeech is also about that lovely neo-nazi facebook group that they use to plan the next terror attack on a refugee hostel. Do you also think that is ok and we should just deal with it?
Then ISIS should also be allowed to do some recruiting on twitter, right? We have all read worse stuff on the internet anyways, right?

that’s completely different and you are literally aware of it and just ignoring to try and make a point.

Once you personally are a target of racism (not being mean, I mean people literally threatening to hurt you or your family) you would probably think otherwise.

Hatespeech is not about being MEAN. "Just ignore it" is an advice that simply doesn’t cut it.

"free speach doesn’t mean you can say anything you want". Yes it does.
"you don’t have any right to mock with me, bully me, cause me psychologic stress". Your ideas are causing ME psychological stress.
You aren’t just trying to regulate words, but thoughts and ideas that you don’t agree with, and in doing so are trying to control people’s actions and lives. Just because you believe something is wrong doesn’t give you the right to try and silence those who think it is right. Their ideas may drive you crazy but there’s nothing you should be able to do about it. Some things you just have to live with, or dare i say it, coexist and accept people the way they are. There the world is a harsh place and isn’t going to treat anyone with kid gloves.

I think the issue is more of who gets to decide as to what sort of speech is unacceptable and what kind of consequences to mete out, if any.

To play devil’s advocate, say you are offended by a post. But you also happen to be super sensitive and easily offended and are the only person offended by said post, and no one else has an issue with it.

Who should Facebook listen to?

free speach doesn’t mean you can say anything you want; it means you can say anything you want till you start hurting others through your words.

So what if I say something along the lines of "Jesus is fake and most of Christianity is built upon politically motivated lies. The only truth comes from Vishnu/Allah/Buddha/Stephen Hawking (insert whatever you believe in)".

I imagine a lot of devout Christian folk would be deeply hurt by my statement. A lot would simply be angered by the fact that I am saying another religion is correct over theirs. And this becomes a particularly sticky topic when it comes to religion. Because there’s no middle ground. It’s either my god is real, or your god is real. And people do get in violent confrontations over such matters.

So at what point, and how, do you draw the line at hurting others? Because people will choose to get hurt at anything they don’t agree with. And everyone’s definition of what constitutes hate speech is different.

I agree with you that fake news definitely needs to be stopped on a high priority basis. Hate speech and hurtful speech is a lot more difficult to define.

And quite frankly, I do not want my freedom of speech restricted because some namby-pamby religious nutjob get’s offended/hurt every time I point out that science has debunked his religion multiple times over the last couple of centuries.

Jailing someone for not wanting more immigrants in Germany is not a thing. It is not hatespeech to have such opinions. You make it sound like the German definition of hatespeech is made up as the regulators go. It is not. There are clear rules what qualifies as hatespeech. Denying the holocaust is, for example. Or suggesting to inflict violence on a certain group of people. Very reasonable rules. Facebook in Germany has to play by these rules. Right now Facebook doesn’t care. I am fine with the EU suing the living crap out of Facebook. It is the only way they will learn they have to stick to local laws. I don’t care about US free speech or what some random US citizen thinks free speech means, it is simply irrelevant. Germany figures out their own laws and is the only party to decide what is right and what is wrong within it’s borders (regarding hatespeech), they are big boys.

but then it’s okay for fb to follow china’s local rules and assist in the oppression of the chinese people?

Facebook isn’t even allowed in China, IIRC.

Certainly Microsoft is thinking so because they censor everything the Chinese government asks them to. Apple as well. If they don’t they couldn’t conduct business there (which is the case for facebook and google, e.g.). They have to stick to the rules or they are out.
Listen, you don’t have to like what the Chinese government is doing (hell, I don’t), or the German government. But the fact is you have no say in their national matters. If a company doesn’t like local laws or thinks they are morally unjust they can choose to stay out of that market. But you can’t just reap all the (financial) benefits and give the finger to every regulation. Don’t think for one second that facebook let’s racism fester on it’s German platform because of some moral obligation to protect whatever. It is a business choice on their side and they should rightfully bleed for it.

There is a definite conflict of interest for these social media giants. When outrage and bigotry are such a large stream of ad-driven revenue, it’s hard to press the "ban" button on it.

I know it’s easy to ask, "what exactly constitutes hate speech and who will decide?" but the only reason we’re even at this point is because even the most blatant and egregious examples of bigotry and hate speech seem to thrive and remain on these platforms and so the response to that is to take a ham-fisted approach like Germany wants to. It’s a mess all around.

The fact that they make their living off ads tells you the solution that will end up happening: no speech that would be objectionable to McDonald’s or General Motors will be tolerated. Social media will end up as bland and safe as prime time broadcast.

Right now, advertisers are kicking up a fuss because their ads are running next to hate speech and terrorist training videos. The advertisers pay the bills. You better believe they will get their way.

And I guess that will be better. The triumph of the Nanny Corporation.

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