German online hate speech reform criticised for allowing ‘backdoor’ data collection

The draft law was criticised in advance because user data would be transferred to the BKA before an authority had even established an initial suspicion. It is the platforms themselves - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube - which would identify, delete and forward potentially criminal content. EPA-EFE/SASCHA STEINBACH

Germany’s Network Implementation Act, NetzDG for short, has become even stricter. Social networks must now not only delete potentially criminal content but also report it to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). However, some data will have to be forwarded to the authorities, even before they have established suspicion. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Late Thursday afternoon (18 June), the Bundestag decided to tighten the laws against hate speech online, which will work in conjunction with the NetzDG, which was adopted in 2017.

Previously, if someone posted potentially criminal content on social networks, these only had to delete the post.

Now, the new amendment provides for an obligation to report to the BKA, whereby social networks also have to transmit some user data, such as IP addresses or port numbers. The aim is to guarantee effective prosecution, which could have a preventive effect.

“Words can become deeds. The horrible deeds of Halle/Saale, Hanau and the assassination of Kassel district president, Dr Walter Lübcke, have made this clear to us in a vivid way”, Thorsten Frei, deputy chairman of the Union parliamentary group, has said in a press release.

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“Quick Freeze” against data collection failed

Previously, the draft law was already being criticised because user data would be transferred to the BKA before an authority had even established an initial suspicion.

It is the platforms themselves – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – which would identify, delete and forward potentially criminal content. Germany’s data protection commissioner, Ulrich Kelber (SPD), and the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag were critical of this.

The latter introduced – unsuccessfully – an amendment proposal that would have provided for a compromise solution called “Quick Freeze”.

Under the proposal, if posts were deleted, the user’s internal data would not have been immediately sent to the BKA but would have been kept (“frozen”) as only the deleted content would have reached the authorities. In other words, they could only obtain the data if they wanted to establish and investigate a suspicion.

However, this request for amendment failed.

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Social networks as “deputy sheriffs”

Thus a so-called “suspicion database” is being developed, according to Ann Cathrin Riedel, chairwoman of “LOAD – Association for liberal network policy”, who spoke to EURACTIV Germany.

Riedel also refers to a contradiction that arises from parallel legislation.

The law passed yesterday (18 June) to combat hate crime works in conjunction with the NetzDG, which is also in the process of being reformed.

For now, the proposed reform provides that users can object to the deletion of their content within two weeks. However, by that time, their data is already in the hands of the BKA, which means their right to privacy has already been harmed. Niema Movassat of Die Linke (The Left) described this as “data collection through the back door”.

From her own experience, Riedel knows that posts are quickly incorrectly deleted, for example when someone writes to friends for fun “Dude, I’m going to kill you!”

Although this could be misunderstood as a death threat – which can be objected – the NetzDG reform would already violate the user’s data protection rights.

According to Riedel, privately operated platforms are becoming ” deputy sheriffs”.

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Free and gratuitous?

Apart from that Riedel also considers this notification requirement to be ineffective.

It is not the sharpness of the law that is lacking, but the enforcement of existing laws. For this purpose, more resources in the BKA, more effective victim protection and more advice centres are needed. However, this would be expensive compared to tightening the law by introducing the reporting obligation for example.

Furthermore, the problem would have to be taken more seriously by the authorities, because according to Riedel, especially women who are confronted with hatred online often hear the following: “Then delete your account”.

Edited by Samuel Stolton

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