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23rd Mar 2019

Germany calls for EU laws on hate speech and fake news

  • Maas said hate speech on the internet can oprompt physical violence (Photo: Tony Webster)

Germany has said there should be EU-level laws against hate speech and fake news, but the European Commission appears lukewarm.

Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, said on Wednesday (5 April) that “European solutions” were needed to regulate content on tech giants such as Facebook or Twitter.

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  • "Fake news are bad but a ministry of truth is worse," said Andrus Ansip. (Photo: European Parliament)

He spoke after the German government the same day endorsed a bill that could fine social media up to €50 million in Germany if they did not delete “openly offensive” content.

“Verbal radicalisation is often the first step towards physical violence”, Maas told German media.

“There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street”, he said.

“Anyone who spreads criminal content on the internet must be consistently prosecuted and brought to justice … in the end, we need European solutions for companies that operate across Europe," he added.

He cited a justice ministry study which said that YouTube removed 90 percent of offensive content in January and February, but Facebook deleted just 39 percent and Twitter 1 percent.

“In future, if it doesn't get better, we will impose high fines on these companies”, he said.

The minister said Germany’s free speech laws protected “even repulsive and ugly utterances, even lies”, but he said the law drew a red line on “hate crime and malicious fake news”.

The social networks enforcement law is likely to go through parliament before the summer in time for German elections in autumn.

It comes amid a spike in far-right hate speech in Germany, but also amid concern that Russian will try to sway the French and German elections with fake news the way it did the US vote last year.

The German model obliges social media to delete libel, slander, defamation, incitement to commit a crime, hate speech, or child pornography within 24 hours after it is flagged by their users.

The bill also obliges them to file quarterly reports to authorities and to reveal the identities of malicious posters.

It urges a “cautious approach” to the fines, which should only be imposed for systematic violations and not for “specific individual cases”.

German debate

Germany already has laws against Holocaust denial, but German society is sensitive to censorship due to memories of Communist-era repression.

The bill was welcomed by the country’s Jewish community.

“When hatred is stoked, and the legal norms in our democracy threaten to lose their relevance, then we need to intervene”, Josef Schuster, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said.

But German Green Party MP, Renate Kuenast, said the current version of the bill could have unwanted consequences.

She said the fines were “an invitation to not only delete real insults, but everything for safety's sake … the version [Maas] is now presenting will limit freedom of opinion because it will simply become delete, delete, delete”.

The German Association of Journalists, the DJV, said the same.

It said the “journalistic responsibility for content can not be delegated to platform operators” such as Facebook because they might delete content for commercial rather than editorial reasons.

Commission lukewarm

Speaking also on Wednesday in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the European commissioner for the digital single market, Andrus Ansip, said fake news should be treated gently.

“We have to believe in the common sense of our people," he told MEPs.

"Fake news are bad, but a ministry of truth is even worse. You can fool all the people some of the time, and you can fool some people all the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time," said the commissioner, an Estonian liberal who grew up in the Soviet Union.

He said extremism, fake news, and hate speech required different policy responses.

Hate speech - defined as incitement to violence or hatred on the basis of race, ethnic origin, colour or religion - was already illegal, the commissioner said.

He said the commission would review the code of conduct it signed last year with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Microsoft that obliged them to crack down on illegal content.

But Ansip said freedom of expression should be protected at all costs.

"The concept of free speech protects not only what we agree with but also that of which we are critical and disturbing. We need to address the spread of fake news by improving media literacy and critical thinking," he said.

Facebook unhappy

Facebook in Germany has already joined forces with Correctiv, a journalists’ collective, to weed out egregious content.

It said in a statement that the new bill “would force private companies rather than the courts to become the judges of what is illegal in Germany”.

YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, echoed the Green Party MP, saying fear of fines could see firms “remove content that should not be removed”.

A French translation of this article may be found here.

A German translation of this article may be found here.

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