The German government has formally proposed fining Facebook and Twitter up to €50m ($53m) for failing to remove slanderous fake news and hate speech within 24 hours.
A new bill introduced on Tuesday by interior minister Heiko Maas is designed to "combat hate crime and criminal offenses on social networks more effectively," according to an official summary (in German). It would cover "... defamation, slander, public prosecution, crimes, and threats."
The draft law is designed to act as a 24-hour complaints service and would oblige social networks to delete "obvious" criminal content within 24 hours – and it would apply across the platform, not just to one instance of the specific content. The networks would need to block or delete other criminal content within a week. The law would oblige the companies to inform complainants of any decision.
The law would also require the companies to publish quarterly reports on how they handled complaints, including: the number of complaints, how decisions were made, and how its complaints unit is staffed.
If a social network fails to comply with the law, particularly with respect to timely removal of criminal content, the law would allow for up to a €5m fine to be levied against the individual responsible, and up to €50m against the company.
If the company disputes whether specific content is illegal, it will fall to the German courts to decide its criminality.
Are they serious?
While such an approach may seem extraordinary given the widely assumed situation that social networks are an online free-for-all, the German government appears to be quite serious in its efforts.
The interior ministry not only published an explanation of the draft law, but Minister Maas also wrote a personal explanation (in German) of the rationale for the law and gave a speech on the issue, which was recorded and posted on the department's website.
In his personal explanation, Maas immediately tackles the cultural issue that will be the first point of contention for social networks – almost all of whom are based in the United States: freedom of expression.
While the United States has its vigorously defended First Amendment, which gives strong legal defense to all forms of speech no matter how offensive, Europe takes a less absolutist view.
Hate speech laws are standard across Europe and are strongly enforced, thanks in no small part to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and 40s. In Germany, for example, it is illegal to promote Nazi ideology or to deny the Holocaust.
Maas open his explanation by addressing this approach: "Freedom of expression also protects repulsive and ugly utterances ... Even a lie can be covered by freedom of expression. But freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins."
He points out that the internet is taking on an increasingly important role in our societies and argues that "verbal radicalization is often the precursor to physical violence."
And he refutes the idea that social networks are little more than message boards, claiming that they are equally responsible if their platform "is abused to spread criminal hate."
Maas also references a report published Tuesday that showed that social networks including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are removing only a small portion of the criminal content reported to them within 24 hours.
In that report, carried out over the course a year, Twitter stands out as having removed only one per cent of content reported to it as criminal within 24 hours. Facebook deleted 39 per cent, and Google's YouTube removed 90 per cent. The German government had set a target of 70 per cent.
The German government has given social networks plenty of forewarning that it intended to act against the publication of hate speech. And that has resulted in a raft of policy changes and technological tweaks in recent months.
Twitter, for example, refused to comment directly on the proposed draft law, but did send The Register a list of changes it made to its service in recent weeks. They include:
- Identifying abusive accounts and limiting what they can do.
- Adding extra filtering options, such as muting all accounts that don't have a profile pic, or allowing users to exclude certain words or phrases.
- Identifying persistent abusers of the service and preventing them from opening new accounts.
- Providing a "safe search" option that excludes potentially offensive material.
Twitter's approach demonstrates very clearly the Atlantic cultural divide: it believes that removing content is akin to censorship and is focused on giving users the ability to not see content that they find offensive. It is notable however that Twitter is, by far, the least civil and most aggressive social media network.
Facebook has taken a middle-ground approach and has found itself the repeated target of criticism from politicians as a result: most notably when German chancellor Angela Merkel complained personally to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the amount of anti-immigrant material that was available on the service.
In a statement on the draft law, Facebook told us: "We have clear rules against hate speech and work hard to keep it off our platform. We are committed to working with the government and our partners to address this societal issue. By the end of the year, over 700 people will be working on content review for Facebook in Berlin. We will look into the legislative proposal by the Federal Ministry of Justice."
Google has two different approaches: its search engine only links to other sites' content and it has systems in place to simply remove those links from its engine. When it comes to YouTube, it has a much firmer policy than Facebook or Twitter and will take content down very quickly and require users to argue their case for putting it back up. But then, video is often easier to assess than words.
The German minister is not impressed with recent improvement efforts however, noting: "[Companies'] self-commitments have led to initial improvements. These are not yet sufficient ... too little criminal content is being deleted and not quickly enough. The biggest problem is that the networks do not take the complaints of their own users seriously enough."
He also stated that Germany was not seeking to go it alone with its plans, but intends to build a Europe-wide consensus on dealing with criminal content on social networks.
"National regulations that apply to Germany are a necessary step but they can only be the beginning. In the end, we also need European solutions for European-wide companies," he wrote.
"I will therefore present our proposals for regulation to the European Commission and also present to my colleagues in the Council of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers. We want to continue the process at a European level." ®