With the aim of taking a more active role in policing illegal hate speech on their sites, Germany is considering new laws that would force social media platforms such as Facebook and search engines such as Google.
Hiring of legally qualified ombudsmen to carry out deletions, forcing companies to set up clear channels for registering complaints and to publish the number of complaints they receive are among the measures being considered by Angela Merkel’s coalition government.
If online platforms neglect to remove posts in breach of German hate speech law within 24 hours, on-the-spot fines of up to €500,000 would be imposed and be hit with fines calculated on the basis of their global annual turnover for failing to meet such legal requirements.
With politicians across Europe looking anxiously ahead to elections in France and Germany next year and after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s shock election in November, concerns over social media’s power to fire up populist narratives and boost conspiracy theories has increased.
Political frustration with tech companies’ refusal to take responsibility for content posted on their sites has increased markedly in recent months in Germany, which has some of the toughest laws around hate speech – including prison sentences for Holocaust denial and inciting hatred against minorities.
Vowing to aim to delete illegal postings within 24 hours, German justice minister Heiko Maas, in autumn 2015, set up a hate speech taskforce including representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter.
With Facebook only deleting 46%, YouTube 10% and Twitter 1% of illegal content flagged up by normal, non-privileged users, tech companies were still struggling to react adequately to breaches of law, found a government report published in late September this year.
To carry out 2,000 deletions per day each, on its German-language accounts, Facebook currently employs about 600 people via the service provider Arvato, according to an investigation by Süddeutsche Zeitung. But they have received no such information from the tech companies themselves, German officials say.
Maas told The Observer that the German government would take steps towards sanctioning companies if another report due at the start of next year showed no further improvement.
“We are already looking in detail at how we can make providers of online platforms criminally liable for undeleted content that breaks German law. Of course, if other measures don’t work we also need to think about fines. That would be a strong incentive for quick action.”
The justice ministry is independently looking into whether fines in the future can be calculated on the basis of a company’s global annual turnover while German law currently sets an upper limit of €10 million for the amount companies can be fined for criminal offences.
“We urgently need more transparency,” said Maas, a member of the centre-left Social Democratic party. “We could imagine obliging social networks to publish at regular intervals how many complaints they have received about illegal hate speech and how they dealt with them. That way it would be visible for everyone how many complaints there are and how many deletions. That too would increase the pressure on Facebook, Twitter, Google and others.”
“Companies that make money with their social networks have social obligations – it cannot be in any company’s interest that their platform is used to commit crimes”, he said.
(Adapted from Reuters and The Guardian)