Germany Passes Bill to Crack Down on Hate Speech Online

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By Jabeen Bhatti

Social networks could face fines of up to 50 million euros ($57 million) for persistently failing to remove hate speech from their websites, under a bill the German parliament passed July 7.

The Bundesrat, the parliament’s upper house, approved legislation called NetzDG (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz), which would require social networks with over two million users to remove content that is “obviously illegal” within 24 hours after a complaint has been filed. The networks would be required to remove other offensive or illegal content within seven days under the measure.

The bill now heads to the president, who is expected to sign it into law. If signed, NetzDG will take effect Oct. 1.

The measure comes amid growing legal pressure on social media companies including Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.'s Google to do more to remove accounts and content that promote terrorism, in light of the recent wave of terror attacks across Europe.

Lawmakers want the bill to motivate social networks to start taking action against hate speech and other illegal content, following years of failed talks with government ministries, attorneys told Bloomberg BNA.

“The Ministry of Justice speaks of 14 months of fruitless conversation with the big social networks,” Christlieb Klages, a partner at KVLegal in Berlin, said. “Since the social networks didn’t move a bit in any new direction, here comes the legal pressure.”

Critics of the measure, however, say it will lead to restrictions on free speech online as social networks overcensor their websites to avoid the risk of fines. They also say the terms in the bill—such as “obviously illegal"— are too vague.

A Facebook spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA July 7 that the company is already working to address the issue of hate speech and has already made “substantial progress” in removing illegal content from its site.

Free Speech Issues

NetzDG would require social networks that receive more than 100 complaints per year to publish biannual reports in German detailing their approach and response to these complaints. The reports would have to be made available on the social network’s website and in Germany’s Federal Gazette, the government’s official publication for announcements.

Social networks would also be required to appoint a staff member to receive and respond to complaints lodged over illegal content.

Unclear legal terms and the risk of hefty fines could cause social networks to err on the side of deleting content when in doubt, the Alliance for Free Speech—a coalition of tech firms and associations including ECO, Germany’s leading association for internet companies—said in a June 27 statement on the bill.

“This law does not ensure that a balance of constitutionally protected interests will be struck,” the alliance said. “It still contains the danger of negatively impacting freedom of speech online.”

But for libel law practitioners, the NetzDG introduces a positive “fundamental change” by requiring social networks to appoint someone who can receive injunctions and deal with complaints and court orders, Klages said.

“From a practitioner’s point of view, requiring social networks to name a person is fantastic—you don’t have to translate and have something delivered to the US or Ireland,” he said. “It’s a well-done point to say these people cannot hide behind the lack of a German subsidiary.”

That criticism has been frequently leveled against social media giant Facebook over the years. Facebook’s European headquarters in Ireland.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jabeen Bhatti in Berlin at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

The bill is available in German at http://src.bna.com/qyg.

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