Germany Brings New Social Media Hate Speech Law into Effect

Abuse and hate speech in many forms have long since blighted online platforms, steadily infecting social media sites of just about every size and intent. With this rise in prevalence comes an increased demand from users and officials alike for those responsible for these sites to evaluate, regulate, and remove offending materials.

Img: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Leading the charge in Europe is undoubtedly Germany, who back in April proposed new legislation aimed at tackling such offensive or extremist online content and communications. Named the Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz in German, abbreviated as NetzDG), the legislation requires social networks to remove hate speech within set time periods after receiving a complaint; those time periods being 24 hours for straightforward cases, or 7 days in cases where evaluation of the content is deemed difficult.

As of this week, the aforementioned legislation is now in effect throughout Germany.
Social media platforms that fail to comply with the Network Enforcement Act could face fines of up to €50 million (£58 million), though companies will be granted a transition period to allow them to properly prepare for the full implementation of the legislation, which runs up until January 1st 2018. The law will also require social media firms operating in Germany to appoint a contact person in the country.

Back in April when the proposed law was first backed by the German cabinet, justice minister Heiko Maas stated that, “Freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins.” This statement however has done little to alleviate fears among some that the new legislation marks the first step towards a world in which governments censor our daily activities, and freedom of speech is all-but-dead. Critics of the new law are already arguing that many of the larger platforms may unnecessarily remove content out of fear of being slapped with a hefty fine, resulting in perfectly innocent posts being flagged as offensive or discriminatory when such an assertion is simply not true.

Given the wording used within the legislation and its clear focus on hate speech and related propaganda, it would appear to me that these fears of widespread and overzealous censorship are largely unfounded. If such issues remain a concern in the eyes of the public however, authorities would be wise to address them. Unfortunately, this is far from the only perceived problem within the new legislation.

In direct criticism of the new law, a Facebook representative recently told reporters at Engadget, “[The legislation] would have the effect of transferring responsibility for complex legal decisions from public authorities to private companies.” This should of course be a concern, as private companies should not be charged with upholding the laws of the land on behalf of their entire user-base; such tasks are the domain of law enforcement officials.

All of the above criticisms and concerns aside however, the legislation still appears to have one glaring flaw even if we were to assume the best in regards to the aforementioned points – enforcement.

The 50-strong team charged with implementing and policing the new law may fare well in the boundaries of their own country, but these laws become difficult to enforce in regards to companies based outside of Germany, particularly so if they have no physical presence in Europe at all. Facebook for example have long since used the excuse of an Ireland-based HQ to get out of complying with national laws which are not in effect within Irish borders, or to avoid paying tax throughout all countries in which they operate. This same approach may well be taken here, allowing the very companies under scrutiny to bypass the new German laws.

It is immediately clear at first glance that certain aspects of the law and its future enforcement do need to be ironed out before the transition period ends in January, but if implemented properly the legislation may well achieve its aim of cutting down on the prevalence of hate speech on social media platforms. A word of warning to authorities however - avoid unnecessary censorship, or you will have something of a controversy on your hands before you know it.

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