Germany set to fine social media platforms millions over hate speech

Justice Minister Heiko Maas proposed fining social media platforms millions of euros if they do not crack down on hate speech posted in their forums. [SPD/ Flickr]

A new draft German law would fine social media firms up to €50 million if they fail to remove hate speech, jumping ahead of EU plans. The European Commission is still weighing up whether it will propose rules to crack down on online hate speech.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) has lost his patience with big tech firms. He had been speaking out against their slow response to online hate speech for months. In an effort to defuse growing tensions, Facebook hired extra staff in Germany last year just to deal with social media users’ complaints more quickly.

Maas proposed a new law today (14 March) that would require social media platforms remove “obviously” illegal hate speech within 24 hours and less obvious illegal speech within seven days. If they don’t comply with the rules, companies face fines of up to €50 million. Individual people working at social media firms face penalties of up to €5 million.

The draft bill still needs to be approved by the German government and Bundestag. Maas told reporters today he thinks it can pass before the German elections on 24 September.

The European Commission has been wary of introducing a new law to deal with hate speech. Instead, EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova has gone for a softer approach and signed a voluntary agreement with Google, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft last May asking the companies to remove posts within 24 hours.

But she will announce in May whether the Commission might get tougher.

Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook agree to remove hate speech online

Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook said they will remove posts containing hate speech within 24 hours as part of a new agreement organised by the European Commission to counter extremism on the internet.

“The example of Germany today shows that the patience of the European lawmakers is not unlimited,” Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said today.

The May review of tech companies’ actions against hate speech “will be an important impetus for further discussion and an important moment to decide on the way forward,” he said.

Maas acknowledged today that the distinction between “obvious” and less obvious hate speech will “unfortunately likely preoccupy courts”. But he said “there is no other option.”

Social media posts that make violent comments like “Put all Jews in concentration camps” would be a clear example of hate speech that companies will be required to take down within 24 hours, Maas said.

Germany has pressured the European Commission to create EU-wide rules that would require social media companies to remove any posts or content under specific terms if they contain hate speech.

Hate speech targeted by Council of Europe

The Council of Europe has published a series of guidelines on preventing and combatting hate speech. EURACTIV Italy reports.

Brigitte Zypries, Germany’s economy minister, wrote to EU Digital Commissioner Andrus Ansip last month asking him to come out with a proposal that would clarify what content companies must remove across the entire EU.

In her letter, Zypries criticised the Commission’s voluntary agreement with social media firms, calling it a “privatisation of justice.”

The Commission might still present some legal change on hate speech. One official told euractiv.com the executive is considering Zypries’ request for common rules.

Separately from Jourova’s review, the executive will announce in May whether there could be a legal overhaul of rules affecting online platforms, including tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The Commission has vowed not to introduce changes to the EU e-commerce directive, a 17-year-old law that regulates whether tech companies are liable for illegal content. But one official said Ansip might introduce new binding standards detailing what kind of illegal content companies must take down and when.

“On the internet it’s never ideal to have different national rules. It’s very useful that we have EU-wide laws also for companies and obviously for citizens,” one Commission official said.

In a meeting today in Strasbourg, Ansip and six other EU Commissioners agreed the Commission should consider new measures outlining what illegal content internet companies must remove.

Other EU countries are eager to see a legal change as well, officials said.

Maas said justice ministers from other EU countries have asked him for details on how the law works out after it is passed. He told reporters he could not yet say “how far we’ll go with this topic”.

A spokesman for Twitter, which Maas said has only removed 1% of hate speech on the platform in Germany, declined to comment on the draft bill.

Maas praised Youtube in his remarks today for removing 90% of hate speech flagged by users, according to research from the Justice Ministry. A Google spokesman said that data confirms “YouTube’s removal processes are fast and effective. We will continue to improve our systems to ensure that illegal hate speech is dealt with quickly”.

Facebook removed 39% of hate speech reported by users, according to the ministry data. A spokeswoman for Facebook had not yet responded to a request for comment by the time this article was published.

EU urges US tech giants to act faster against hate speech

US tech giants including Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube and Microsoft will have to act faster to tackle online hate speech or face laws forcing them to do so, the European Commission said on Sunday (4 December).

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