The German cabinet has approved a plan to fine social networks such as Facebook up to ß50-million (R730-million) if they do not remove hateful postings quickly and to make them reveal the identity of those behind the posts.
“There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble-rousing on social networks as on the street,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said.
Germany already has some of the world’s toughest hate speech laws covering defamation, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, backed up by prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities.
The issue has taken on more urgency due to concern about the spread of fake news and racist content on social media, with many in Germany’s political establishment worried it could influence public opinion in this year’s election campaign.
The draft law would give social networks 24 hours to delete or block obviously criminal content and seven days to deal with less clear-cut cases, with an obligation to report back to the person who filed the complaint about how they had handled the case.
In the last two years, about one million asylum seekers have arrived in Germany, resulting in an explosion in the volume of online xenophobic hate speech.
Alarmed by the incendiary nature of the posts, the government has repeatedly warned the online behemoths to take action to better police the content on their network.
The web companies pledged in 2015 to examine and remove any hateful comments within 24 hours, but in a recent report tracking progress Maas said not enough had been done.
Maas said Twitter only took down 1% and Facebook 39% of the content reported by users deemed to flout Germany’s anti-hate speech laws.
Google’s YouTube video-sharing platform fared far better, with a rate of 90%.
Beyond hate speech and fake news, the draft legislation also covers other illegal content, including child pornography and terror-related activity.
The companies would have 24 hours to remove any posts that openly violate German law after they are flagged by users.
Executives of the social media groups also risk individual fines up to ß5-million (R73-million) in case of non-compliance.
But critics warned that the proposed law could stifle freedom of expression.
Renate Kuenast, an MP with the opposition Greens, said the fines were almost an invitation to not just erase real insults, but to wipe out almost everything for the sake of playing it safe.
Maas acknowledged that freedom of expression “has huge significance in our democracy”.
Underlining the frustration with the slow-moving fight against online hate, social network user Steffi Brachtel said she had filed countless complaints to Facebook over offensive posts.
But only once had it agreed to remove a post — a Hitler-related one, she said.
Brachtel said she had also faced physical threats. Neo-nazis had followed her home and her letterbox had been bombed. – AFP