New German Law Cracks Down on Social Media Hate Speech

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Facebook and other social media companies face fines of up to $57 million if they fail to delete illegal, racist or slanderous comments or posts.

Germany on Friday passed new legislation targeting illegal hate speech online, approving a law that would fine social media companies such as Facebook for posts or comments deemed illegal, hateful or slanderous.

Under the new law, social media companies will have 24 hours to delete offending material after it has been brought to their attention, or face fines of up to $57 million (€50 million). The legislation applies to all companies operating digital platforms with more than 2 million users in Germany, including Facebook, YouTube owner Google and Twitter, among others.

Germany has some of the strictest anti-hate speech regulations in the Western world. Nazi symbols, for example, as well as Holocaust denial, are illegal here.

The law gives companies up to seven days to decide what to do with content that has been flagged as offensive but does not clearly incite violence or is defamatory.

Companies judged to persistently fail to address complaints by taking too long to delete illegal content will face fines, that will start at $5.7 million (€5 million) and can rise to as much as $57 million (€50 million). The legislation also requires companies to publicly report, every six months, the number of complaints they have received and how they have handled them.

Critics of the new rules say they go too far in restricting free speech and worry that online companies will err of the side of censorship to avoid hefty fines.

But the German government has had online hate in its sights after racist and anti-immigrant content online spiked following the recent increase in refugees entering the country. More than a million migrants have arrived in Germany since 2015, the majority from Muslim countries. Recently revealed police statistics show the country has also seen a sharp increase in right-wing violence.

A study published this year found that Facebook and Twitter had failed to meet the German government's target of removing 70 percent of online hate speech within 24 hours of being alerted to its presence. The report found that both companies did eventually erase almost all of the illegal hate speech that had been flagged. YouTube did significantly better, removing some 90 percent of offensive content within a day of being notified.

In May, Facebook announced plans to double, to 7,500, the number of employees worldwide it employs to clear its platform of offensive postings. The company on Friday said it shares the German government's goal of fighting hate speech.

German justice minister Heiko Maas, who drafted the new law, defended it on Friday, saying it simply extended the country's existing laws for offline speech to the digital space. Maas said the legislation would put an end “to the verbal law of the jungle on the internet and protect the freedom of expression for all. 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.”

The new law will take effect in October, less than a month after national elections in Germany.

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