Germany wants to fine Facebook over hate speech reporting

Facebook's community standards should not be above the law, according to Germany's new Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht. EPA-EFE/JOHN G. MABANGLO [EPA-EFE/JOHN G. MABANGLO]

Social media platforms in Germany are obliged to report hate speech and other illegal content. Germany’s Federal Office of Justice is expected to slap a €2 million fine on Facebook for reporting only a fraction of such activity on its platform. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The Federal Office of Justice is considering Facebook’s reports on hate speech and other illegal content being spread across its platform to be incomplete and in violation of its new Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG).

While YouTube reported 215,000 messages and Twitter 260,000, Facebook counted only 1,048 violations, of which about 35% were deleted. Germany’s Federal Office of Justice considers Facebook’s reporting to be incomplete – the low number creates a “distorted picture”, according to the office.

However, the fine is not yet final.

Germany wanted to create clear standards with its new Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), by which it aims to create greater transparency when dealing with online hate speech.

Since it came into force in January 2018, social media companies had to delete illegal posts within 24 hours and publish reports every six months on how they deal with complaints about such content.

“Calls for murder, incitement to hatred, threats and insults are not an expression of freedom of opinion. They are punishable acts that are intended to injure, exclude and incite,” said Germany’s new Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht, who took over from Katharina Barley last week.

“Freedom of speech ends where criminal law begins,” she said, adding that Facebook’s community standards should not be above the law, as she expects transparency.

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Facebook speaks its own law

A major point of criticism is that instead of filing a report with the police, Facebook often simply deletes criminal activity, including re-offences.

In other words, Facebook applies its own rules.

Facebook has set up two options for users to submit their complaints: Either as an infringement of Community standards or as a violation of the NetzDG, the former being more visible to users. Many more complaints are being settled by Facebook’s own rules.

This does not suit Germany’s federal office at all, as it is neither transparent nor democratic. This is supposed to change.

“The fine is the first sign that the law is working. This is certainly not the last time that sanctions will be applied,” a spokesman for the ministry told EURACTIV.

The NetzDG has initiated a lively debate on what should be allowed online and how strict intervention should not lead to curtailing the right to freedom of expression.

Since the law came into force, the discussion has already come a long way, according to Martin Eifert, a law scholar at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

“Now it’s no longer a matter of abolishing the law, but of how we can optimise it,” Eiffert said.

And there is a whole series of suggestions for improvement. For instance, there is no authority to which corporations can turn with their elaborated testing and deletion procedures, as in the case of implementing the NetzDG – to be able to “certify the harmlessness”, according to Tobias Gostomzyk, a media law professor at the Technical University of  Dortmund.

On the other hand, this cannot hide the fact that current transparency reports are not meaningful enough, according to Gostomzyk.

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Legislators overwhelmed by the internet

Also, it would appear that too simple an understanding of internet regulation had been applied. Many things are interconnected when it comes to online matters, many of which used to be considered separately. For instance, what is considered private, compared to what is public? And what about individual and mass communication?

“Legislators are therefore often overwhelmed,” said Gostomzyk, as they often base their laws on a simplified vision of the internet.

In addition, it would be simply impossible to have a basic template to assess borderline individual statements online.

However, according to the law, digital companies have to make deletion decisions very quickly, in some cases, they are even automated.

Although Facebook employs 63 people to check NetzDG’s complaints, there is still little time to withhold content from being spread because of its rapid distribution. The traditional way of bringing such cases to court could take months, sometimes years.

It therefore makes more sense to regulate very specific sections as this would be a way to avoid censorship, according to Gostomzyk.

As an example, he cited the EU regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online. Here, society’s interest appears to be so clear that regulating the matter seems appropriate.

The fine announced today, however, would have a symbolic effect, according to Gostomzyk.

“It would also have been possible to take an informal approach at first and then call for improvements to the testing and deletion procedure. However, the office obviously wanted to pronounce sanctions,” he added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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